National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG)

Australian / America Exchange

abstract of lightning and a kanagroo.


Australian American Exchange

During January and February of 2007, 114 firefighters were required to adopt a completely different situational awareness. Instead of Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine, spruce and alpine fir, they found themselves in Eucalyptus groves and Acacia forests. They were no longer concerned with bear encounters—instead, they looked forward to seeing Kangaroos, Wombats and Koalas. And, in the middle of the American winter, they were fighting heat, drought, and 2.4 million acre blazes.

Though it might seem like a daunting task, these men and women actually considered themselves a lucky few, on the vanguard of a new firefighting experience. They were the most recent—and the largest group of American—participants in an exchange program between the United States and Australia.  More than an exchange really, the program was designed for mutual support, collaborative research and staff exchange.  The program began in May 2000 after very successful exchanges during 1997 and again in 1999.

Programmatic History

The U.S.Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) firefighter exchange program was born out of an unusual trust between two nations, which had developed through the North American Forests Commission and the Aus/NZ Forests Fire Management Group Fire Management Study Tours. The US wildfire season of 2000 brought challenges unseen in the West for over fifty years. Eventually, 90,000 fires would consume more than 7,000,000 acres around the country. [1] At the height of the season in late August, the country’s wildfire fighting capacity was completely engaged; nearly 30,000 personnel had been mobilized, including 20,000 civilian firefighters and 4,000 soldiers as well as support staff. [2] Fire managers now realized that any additional assistance would have to come from beyond U.S. borders. There was a mechanism by which this could happen: reciprocal agreements existed by which both Canadian and Mexican firefighters could be dispatched to help fight U.S. wildfires—and over 1,300 Canadian firefighters joined Americans on the fireline. [3]

When these traditional sources proved insufficient, however, fire managers were forced to look beyond—far beyond—traditional sources. One such source was Australian firefighters. There was a problem, however; while Aussies had been visiting the U.S. (and vice-versa) on study tours since 1951, there existed no official agreements for bringing firefighters to the U.S. to aid in emergency suppression activities. This problem was solved by a rare case of bureaucratic audacity: in 2 days slightly, the arrangement was hammered out, and agreement was drafted, and 79 ANZ firefighters were on their way to the U.S. These 79 fire professionals filled critical mid- and upper-level support positions throughout the wildland fire and aviation infrastructure. [4]

The effectiveness of that first deployment, coupled with another destructive fire season in 2002, forced another deployment of ANZ personnel Unlike 2000, this deployment was conducted under the auspices of a new agreement, which had been passed into law a mere week before, after nearly two years of drafting and revision. Under this new agreement, ANZ personnel assisted Americans in 2003 and 2006, with over 100 firefighters making the journey during the 2006 season. Though the program’s early years were dominated by Australians visiting the United States, a contingent of 30 American firefighters did assist with the 2003-2004 fire season in Australia. [5]

The 2006-2007 Deployment

Immediately after the end of the 2006 US wildfire season—one of the most destructive on record, costing close to $2 billion to suppressAustralia’s 2006-2007 fire season began. The fire season was especially difficult in the Australian state of Victoria, where significant fires burned even while Australian firefighters were finishing their American deployments. By mid-December, record drought conditions and lightning storms caused a series of fires to join together into the Great Divide Complex, which stretched across 2,400,000 acres of the state of Victoria. [6] The state of Victoria soon requested international assistance, not just from their neighbor New Zealand, but also from the United States and Canada.  On December 28, 2006, six American personnel were deployed to Victoria—two as infrared technicians and four liaisons to mold the larger American deployment to come. One of those liaisons was Bodie Shaw, Bureau of Indian affairs (BIA) Deputy Director for Wildland Fire, based out of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Unfortunately for the American contingent (though the Australians fighting the Victorian fires probably saw it differently) a series of fronts brought humid and wet conditions, slowing the Australian fires and delaying the eagerly waiting American forces (used contingent earlier in the Para) by ten days.

Finally, the Americans were mobilized, and by January 21st and 22nd, 2007, 114 American firefighters—two hotshot crews and 68 other resources—were arriving in Victoria for a thirty-day assignment. [7] After a multiple-day orientation to the differences between Australian and American fire behavior, topography and suppression techniques, the Americans were divided into modules, paired with local Victorian fire personnel, and sent throughout the state to help battle the fires.

The Differences Between the Systems

According to Bodie Shaw, “There were a lot of commonalities, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t also a lot of differences,” a statement which seems to encapsulate the whole deployment nicely.  The Australians operate under the Australian Inter-Service Incident Management System (AIIMS), which was modeled after the American Incident Command System (ICS). Australians involved in the first international deployment in 2000 thought that AIIMS was approximately “80-90% identical to the American ICS system.” [8] One of the major goals of the initial December deployment was to work out those differences, to “crosswalk [the AIIMS system] with ICS and determine what we needed to order,” said Mr. Shaw.

Another major difference is that the majority of wildfire suppression operations in Victoria are conducted by the Country Fire Authority (CFA), an organization made up for the most part of volunteer firefighters. As John Segar, another liaison working for the Fish and Wildlife Service at NIFC, put it, “volunteers are the backbone of the wildfire suppression organization.” In comparing the two systems, Mr. Segar saw a number of advantages to the Australian system: “First, unlike here, where everyone thinks that the Forest Service is responsible to put out any wildland fire, in Victoria it is recognized that the local communities and the local fire departments have, if not all of that responsibility, a huge part of that responsibility.” Another major difference came in the coordination between the CFA and the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE). “In the US there is very little organization or structure between fire departments…while in Victoria, they all work for the same organization, like the Forest Service. They all have similar qualifications, requirements, and SOPs.  If you order an engine, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get,” Mr. Segar said.

Beyond the organizational differences, there were a number of smaller challenges, like the “language barrier”.  As Bodie Shaw stated, “Even though it was another English speaking country, you’d be surprised at the differences.  We take for granted the common everyday vernacular we use in America.  You find that our terms are completely foreign over there.” The American liaisons were prepared, however; during the ten day wait before the January deployment, not only did Mr. Shaw and his colleagues take the time to prepare a dictionary of Australian firefighting slang, but prepared An Australian Deployment Handbook covering various aspects of the assignment, which were then given to the Americans on the long plane ride to Melbourne (see the sidebar for some Aussie-to-US translations).

Another major difference between the two systems was that Australian firefighters do not carry emergency fire shelters as part of their PPE. “Their philosophy is that you should never place yourself in that situation; you should never let fire behavior escalate to a place where you would be put in that situation.” Also, Australians use their vehicles as escape routes, which conflicted somewhat with the American preference to use roads as areas to withdraw to and deploy fire shelters. “They warned us pretty heavily against that over there, because they go back to their vehicles, and when things get bad, they come roaring back down the roads—so they really didn’t want us using roads as deployment zones,” Mr. Segar reported.

The Benefits of the Exchange

Both Mr. Shaw and Mr. Segar were very positive about the exchange program, describing it as a “great experience” and a “good opportunity.” Mr. Shaw described what he saw as the biggest benefit: “When the Aussies came over in 2006, American incident commanders were cognizant of their Australian abilities, but because they had never worked in the western temperate forests of the US, the ICs didn’t know how much responsibility to give to an Aussie incident controller.  The ICs also had concerns about liability, so they wouldn’t allow them to be ICs on our fires.  Part of it was just that we didn’t know how well these folks were trained, and much of it was just about developing a relationship of trust. So when we went over there, the Aussies felt the same way, they just weren’t comfortable with the Americans’ experience.  The Australians also had legitimate concerns regarding liability as well, but now, we are developing a relationship of more comfort with each other. We sent our best, and they know that, and they were starting to give our midlevel and upper-level mangers more reign to do more on the fires, whether it be back burning, or running some sectors or divisions on the fires. We saw that wall start to be broken down.” Both men mentioned that the reciprocal nature of the deployments would also have beneficial effects: “I think it will work well when they come back here. I think that the comfort level will continue to improve,” said Mr. Shaw.

Mr. Segar explained another benefit: observing the adaptability of the Australian fire management organization: “We’re in a situation where fire management is changing very quickly, and we’re not able to keep up with that change. You can go over [to Australia] and because they’re much smaller, nation-wide, they’re able to change a lot faster.”

Beyond just the experience of fire suppression, the program allowed for American firefighters to learn even more about their Australian hosts. “At each of the R and R places there were Aussies there to teach us about the country and the culture. So it was a really great learning experience for everyone, besides the fire climate, to learn about Australia, and what it means to be an Aussie countryman,” Mr. Shaw explained.

The Future

Building on successful 2006-2007 deployment, as well as the five other deployments since 2000, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced at a reception for Ambassadors of Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand in May, 2007, a permanent ANZ-US exchange program. [9] The exchange is slated to begin in 2008, and will send American firefighters to Australia during our fall-winter seasons (corresponding to the Australian spring-summer season) with Australians returning the favor during their winter season.

Unlike the current program, which was for “dire emergencies,” this program will allow both for suppression assistance and for exchanges of ideas in all areas of fire. John Segar explained, “We can learn some things during fire suppression, in the heat of the fight, but in a lot of respects we can learn a lot more when we can go over there and can watch what people are doing without focusing on fighting the fire.” For example, “You look at what they do for community preparedness, and working with communities, they’re so far in front of what we do in the US, there are huge opportunities there.” The program will allow for exchange on topics far beyond fire management as well. “We’ve also broken it down into several other areas: forest mangers, range conservation, national parks in Australia. There’s just a lot of interest in cross pollination, interest in how we do business, how we can improve both country’s systems,” Bodie Shaw explained.

High expectations abound for the new exchange. Expressing his hopes for the new program, Mr. Shaw explained, “Suppression got us started, but there really is so much more to learn. I think that as this develops, this really becomes part of the globalization of resource management. This is one good way for us to start to broaden our depth and breadth of experience nationally and internationally. So that is my one hope, that as this program continues to build, we have familiarity, we have technical exchange and cultural exchange that really benefits us far beyond just the auspices of fire, really into the political arena that we find ourselves in with globalization.”

The AUS-US exchange, in its short history, has already had an effect on how people in both countries approach fire management. Through the formalized exchange that begins next year, it has the potential to profoundly affect the business of wildfire management and international cooperation. It has also genuinely affected the experiences and outlook of the firefighters who have been lucky enough to participate. “I would bet that anybody who went over would be more than happy to go back,” John Segar confided.

Sidebar 1: US-Australia Fire Translations

Should you find yourself fighting bushfires alongside your Aussie

compatriots, you won’t have to suffer through translating their

orders alone—the liaisons of 2006-2007 deployment have

produced this handy glossary. Study it.

Appliance:

A firefighting vehicle, usually equipped with a pump and water supply. Think Engine.

Battleboard:

A visual tool for the management of the status of resources.

Blacking Out:

The process of extinguishing or removing burning material along or near the fire control line, felling stags, trenching logs to prevent rolling, and the like, in order to make the fire safe. Think Mopping Up.

Candle:

The ignition or flare-up of a tree or small clump of trees that ignites foliage and elevated fuels, from the bottom to the top. Think (but don’t say) Torch. (See “Torch” for why)

Ember Attack:

Fire brands spotting ahead of the main fire.  This term is commonly used by media to warn civilians of the potential for spot fire ignitions around properties ahead of the fire. Think Long Range Spotting.

Firebombing:

The technique of dropping a suppressant or retardant from specialist aircraft to suppress a wildfire. Think Retardant Drop.

Floating Collar Tank:

A flexible, self-supporting, open-top tank used as a portable water or retardant reservoir or as a dip tank for helitanker operations. Think Pumpkin.

Gum, Ribbon and Stringybark:

All are types of bark that are shed by Eucalyptus trees and can cause long-range spotting.

Rakehoe:

A hand tool used for dry firefighting consisting of a handle and a metal head with one pronged edge for raking and one sharpened edge for cutting, chipping and scraping down to mineral earth. Think McLeod.

 

A large, old tree, either dead or with significant dead upper branches. Often hollow with an opening at ground level. Once alight, a stag represents a major hazard. Think Snag.

Torch:

Flashlight.

Willy Willy:

Dust devil.

Sidebar 2: The AUS-US Meteorological Exchange         

Though no Australian firefighters assisted with US suppression activities during the 2007 fire season, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have any visitors from “Down Under.” Kevin Parkyn, visited Boise from the Australian state of Victoria, where he works at the Bureau of Meteorology. While here, he worked with the National Weather Service’s Boise office, as well as the BLM predictive services division. He also spent some time assisting the Incident Meteorologists (IMETs) at the Cascade Complex of fires outside of McCall, Idaho.

While he was here, he observed the significant differences between how fire weather is provided in the US and in Victoria. Unlike here, “in each [Australian] state you will find only a handful of people that you would call fire behavior specialists, in Victoria I believe we only have three, so they are a limited resource,” he explained. Correspondingly, in Australia, you “don’t send meteorologists out to the fires—the Bureau doesn’t have the staff resources.”

Because of this situation in Australia, Kevin was very impressed by his time spent as an IMET on the Cascade Complex. “I was really impressed with the organization, how everyone was kept up to date with good information—much of that was from Logistics, but also from the Fire Behavior specialist,” he said. He was impressed, he continued, by how “the fire agencies [in the US] use fire information more intelligently. Perhaps back home they could implement some of the practices you have for exchange of information, particularly the daily morning briefings.”

Beyond his experience working with fire weather, Kevin enjoyed “immersing himself in the city culture.” From floating the Boise River “on a bit of rubber tire,” to visiting our outdoor superstore “Capella’s or Cabella’s or something.” Though he was always worried about getting caught driving on the “wrong side” of the road—the right side in his native Victoria, Kevin found Boise to be a welcoming and engaging place to live.

Reflecting on his time and experiences in Boise, he said, “This whole experience has been sensational…this has easily been the highlight of my professional career to date.”


[1] National Fire News

[2] “Sharing of Wildland Fire Suppression Resources” from Bodie Shaw

[4] Patrick, Andrew J. The Globalization of Wildfire.

[5] “Sharing of Wildland Fire Suppression Resources” from Bodie Shaw

[7] NMAC briefing paper; Key Issues Identified from Operational Reviews of Major Fires in Victoria 2006-2007. http://www.dse.vic.gov.au/CA256F310024B628/0/7A7734F35FFC2E3ACA25733A00200D8F/$File/Report+Ross+Smith+Op+Review+2006-07+fire+seasonv2.pdf

[8] The Globalization of Wildfire

[9] NFEAB AUS-Us Briefing paper. (From Bodie Shaw)

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