California Firefighters Head to Australia to Help Battle Massive Blazes

Firefighters struggle against the strong wind in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on Dec. 31, 2019. (Saeed Khan/AFP/via Getty Images)

A crew of 21 veteran firefighters based in the Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles will head to Australia on Monday to help battle the country’s out-of-control wildfires that have killed at least 25 people and scorched millions of acres.

Federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have already sent a few dozen people to help, most of them with experience managing fires, said Carrie Bilbao, a spokeswoman with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The center is mobilizing U.S. resources in response to Australia’s requests for international firefighting aide.

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The latest crew of 21 firefighters — along with 44 additional personnel sent to Australia on Dec. 30 — will replace a group sent earlier in December. They include hot-shot and helicopter crew members with experience attacking fires early before they grow into large infernos, said Angeles National Forest Fire Chief Robert Garcia.

Firefighters will help crews in Victoria and New South Wales according to Stanton Florea, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service.

"We'll be involved alongside them in the day-to-day management of the fires, covering whatever positions are needed, and then giving a break to folks that are there that have been working week after week after week," Florea said.

"We really have a year-round fire season, whether that's here or in another part of the world. We are proud to help them in their time of need. They've sent folks here during our season in the summertime and the fall."

 

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The Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service are currently working to send another group of personnel as soon as possible, as requested by Australia's emergency services council, according to a statement from the National Interagency Fire Center.

Australia and New Zealand have been sending firefighters to the U.S. for more than 15 years, most recently in August 2018, when 138 came to help battle fires in Northern California and the Northwest, Bilbao said.

The last time U.S. firefighters worked in Australia was 2010.

“Our focus remains on helping the people of Australia and keeping people safe in these unprecedented conditions,” said Craig Leff, director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire.

KQED's Audrey Garces and Kate Wolffe contributed to this story. This story includes reporting from The Associated Press.