MAGNOLIA, Texas – Dozens of firefighters from the United States arrived in Australia on Monday to help fight the increasingly devastating wildfires burning throughout that country.
Officials there have called the fire conditions “catastrophic” and “unprecedented." More than one hundred fires have destroyed more than 14 million acres and thousands of homes and other buildings since September.
At least two dozen people and an estimated nearly half a billion animals have also lost their lives what Australians call “bushfires.”
“It’s a horrible feeling because like all firefighters, the firefighters in Australia are doing their absolute best to contain the problem,” said Magnolia Fire Chief Gary Vincent.
Vincent worked as incident commander for the Tri-County wildfire, the largest in East Texas history. He has also traveled to Australia several times to work with firefighters there as a visiting teaching fellow.
“Certainly, in a fire this size, what’s at risk is entire communities,” Vincent said. “It’s not like they’re going to lose just a home or two homes, they’re going to lose many cities.”
Drought conditions, searing heat and volatile winds have helped fuel the devastating wildfires in Australia, which is in the middle of its summer season.
“They’re going to need some global support,” Vincent said. “The Australian fire service (most firefighters in Australia are volunteers) is not large enough by itself to deal with the problem of this magnitude.”
There are many similarities between fighting fires in Texas and Australia, but some key differences, Vincent said.
“In Australia, much of the forest is embedded with Eucalyptus trees, and … the oil in the eucalyptus trees is more volatile than gasoline when it burns,” Vincent said.
“The other problem is the lack of access,” he added. “In a country the size of Australia with such a limited population, there’s not a lot of roads into a lot of forests, so a lot of the forests are hundreds of square miles.”
Vincent said FEMA decides which American task forces will deploy to national and global emergencies like the Australian fires when American help is requested.
The local Greater Houston area task force, Texas Task Force 1, has not been asked to deploy at this time.