In Australia, US firefighters UU. They help fight fires

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It was a rare victory for experienced Americans fighting the flames of Down Under.

Under a canopy of green eucalyptus in the Australian Alps of the country, the highest mountain range on the continent that divides New South Wales and Victoria, some of the most versatile firefighters in the United States, mostly from southern California, are working to Help Australians take advantage against their worst fire season. never.

The job, until Saturday afternoon, had not always been fruitful for these two dozen firefighters, almost all of the Angeles National Forest. Weekly lightning storms have caused new fires beyond their defensive positions, and even some older fires have spread so quickly that they have surpassed the equipment that ends the containment lines.

Hector Cerna, 39, of Palmdale, Calif., Works to turn off hot spots in Alpine National Park, where he and an American team have been working for the past two weeks.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

But that afternoon, word spread through the radio that a containment line they had dug days before had stopped, stopping the progress of another fire. It was his first success since his arrival in Australia on January 8.

“We finally got a victory,” said firefighter Benjamin Covault, 40, of McCall, Idaho. “He has been kicking everyone’s ass.”

“He wants the work to be meaningful, but we’re talking about big fires,” said Justine Gude, one of the 20 Los Angeles firefighters in Australia during a month of deployment. “You try to take a bite and, if it doesn’t work, you walk away and take another bite. We’re used to it.”

More than 170 US firefighters UU. They are in Australia, a country on the other side of the world that some of them had never visited. Helping their Australian counterparts, they have adapted to a unique culture of firefighting, unusual jargon and landscapes that, although similar in some ways, differ from those in the American West.

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The line of burns can be seen in the foothills of the mountain. Buffalo in Victoria, Australia. A contingent of US firefighters is working with Australians to fight forest fires in the Alpine National Park, northeast of Melbourne.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Here in the Alpine National Park near Mt. Buffalo, the soil is softer and eucalyptus with shallow roots are generally heavier and burn hotter than the conifers and oaks of the Sierra Nevada, creating a danger of falling trees that is unpredictable and potentially lethal. As the gangs make their way through dead trees, the poisonous ants jump on their wrists and bite while the spiders fall on their backs.

“Crazy spiders, man, big spiders the size of your hand. Travis Braten, a firefighter from the US Forest Service UU. Based in Shoshone, Wyo., Who worked with Californians over the weekend. “Some boys have seen snakes. I haven’t seen any, which is fine for me. It seems that everything is poisonous. “

While these firefighters will bring home anecdotes about everyday weirdnesses: resting koalas, kangaroos standing by the road, brightly colored birds and huge insects, they have been doing the manual work that comes with a “hard equipment” label, which It is how the National of Angels The men and women of the forest have been categorized in Australia.

It is the kind of painful work that firefighters do at the beginning of their career until they become more specialized. But because resources are depleted in Australia, with so many fires at once, the Forest Service sent shots and veteran firefighters who generally take their own teams back home and can do everything.

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Justine Gude is a 7-year veteran of the Grand Canyon Firefighters of Texas Canyon, based in the Angeles National Forest. Deployed in Australia, it cleans a chainsaw before leaving the field to repel forest fires in the Alpine National Park. “You try to take a bite and if it doesn’t work, go back and take another bite,” he said.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“They say you need a town, where you need all kinds to make a successful hand team,” Gude said, while staining his hands and nail polish with sand, dirt and oil while cleaning a chainsaw. “You need the funny guy, you need the smart guys, you need the tough guys.”

“I, I’m the strong guy,” Gude said laughing, noting that his body weight was only twice the weight of the team and the chainsaw he carried. “I am like an ant.”

Gude is one of two firefighters from the National Forest of Angels who arrived in the country this month. It is also part of a painting called Women in Fire that promotes fire service opportunities for women. She has seen more female firefighters in Australia than she normally sees in the United States, she said.

While sinking his fingers into the chainsaw’s mud to clean it for another workday on Sunday morning, Gude described how he enjoys the opportunity to challenge his male colleagues about female stereotypes in firefighting.

“I had a captain who used to make me have a hard time. He used to say, “Ugh, your hands are so ugly.” I said, “You know what? Shut up friend, you don’t say that to any of the other boys. You want me to work like a man, my hands will look like those of a man,” he said laughing.

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Leonard Dimaculangan, 41, of Pasadena, California, is the captain of the Texas Canyon Grand Canyon firefighters in the Angeles National Forest. In Australia, he leads a group of American firefighters in the Alpine National Park, near Mt. Buffalo.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Fires have flooded Australia since November, when a series of thunderstorms caused multiple fires in the forested lands driven by the country’s eastern drought, known as forests in the United States.

For several months, the fires killed at least 29 people and destroyed thousands of homes, most of them in New South Wales. The estimated burned area ranges from 12 million to 46 million acres, an area approximately the size of Florida.

While not all cities have been involved, despite what social networks might suggest, people close to wildfires have been facing sporadic evacuations and days and weeks of unhealthy air.

Near Mount Buffalo, a park about 200 kilometers northeast of Melbourne, firefighters have established their base camp along the tourist town of Bright on the Ovens River. With fires and smoke, companies have been struggling to stay afloat, but the influx of Americans has been well received. Australian authorities say American crews have earned their reputation as one of the best in the profession.

“I have worked with the Americans before and there are no surprises here. The arduous US crew is very hardworking,” said David Ross, chief of operations for Abbey Road Fire. “These guys have definitely lived up to … the expectations”.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand have helped each other fight fires for more than 15 years, federal officials say. The two countries sent crews to the US fires. UU. In 2018, and the U.S. Forest Service. UU. Last dispatched crews Down in 2010. There were 178 US personnel. UU. In Australia as of Monday, and another 40 are expected to arrive on Friday, said spokeswoman for the Traci Tejedor Forest Service.

It can negatively affect firefighters who are not fully prepared.

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Benjamin Covault, 40, a smoke jumper from McCall, Idaho, works to cut dangerous trees at a hot spot in Alpine National Park.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Jonathan Merager, 47, of La Canada Flintridge, California, will not see his wife and four children in a month. Twenty years ago I would have spent weeks without talking to them. But with digital technology, they can chat every day, which means that separation is not as difficult as it used to be.

“It’s not easy for many people in this business,” said Merager. “It only takes a lot of coordination, a lot of patience, understanding and empathy.”

When they focus on the work in question, the terrain may seem familiar, Californians said. The hills are dotted with earthy green treetops that give way to valleys covered with gold, tall grassy fields full of cows.

“Just exchange the eucalyptus with the oaks and it would look like home,” said Eduardo Valle, 30, a firefighter from Lancaster, California.

But there are subtle things that can remind you that you are far from another world.

“Out of the line of fire, we say‘ Hello, good morning. Hello, “said Valle, laughing.” They say, ‘G ’day mate’. It’s crazy. “

Firefighters say that Australian accents sometimes require more focus to understand on the radio. The term they use for dead trees standing is “deer” instead of “hitching,” and calling a tanker means requesting a fire truck that carries water instead of an airplane that throws water or retardant.

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American firefighters, 20 firefighters from the National Forest of Angels, take a break after working to turn off hot spots in the Alpine National Park.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

With resources depleted by the amount of fires, Californians have had to adapt to a more defensive strategy of their Australian commanders.

“It is impressive that they do so much with what they have and that drives their strategies and tactics,” said Leonard Dimaculangan, 41, captain of the Texas Canyon National Forest air shot team.

The burning eucalyptus bark peels off like paper and drags the wind like an airplane. Firefighters have reported occasional fires up to 18 miles ahead of the main front of a fire, creating an impossible challenge to contain.

While rain is forecast for Victoria, New South Wales may face warm and windy conditions with possible dry rays in the coming days. Fire officials there have warned residents to prepare their homes for additional fires.

It is these types of shootings that build relationships, Gude said.

“It’s the most fun you’ll have in a [bad] situation, “he said.” Every time something is really difficult and you leave the other side with a group of people, it makes you closer. “

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