Fighting Canada’s forest fires: ‘It was really intense’

HOME AGAIN: Far South Coast Rural Fire Service district officer Garry Cooper returned from Canada on Tuesday. Picture: Alasdair McDonald
HOME AGAIN: Far South Coast Rural Fire Service district officer Garry Cooper returned from Canada on Tuesday. Picture: Alasdair McDonald

With fires ravaging parts of the United States and Canada, a group of 100 Australians have been taking the heat of the frontline.

Bega’s Garry Cooper was one of three local fire fighters sent to Canada to tackle a 220,000 hectare blaze, approaching the disaster like a game of chess – having to think many moves ahead.

The smoke was unavoidable, and in foreign terrain, the trio joined fire fighters from Mexico and New Zealand in helping to control the blaze.

Garry Cooper was one of three local fire fighters sent to Canada to tackle a 220,000 hectare blaze. Picture: Garry Cooper

Garry Cooper was one of three local fire fighters sent to Canada to tackle a 220,000 hectare blaze. Picture: Garry Cooper

“It was totally different fire behaviour to what we are used to,” the Far South Coast Rural Fire Service district officer said.

“Over there if you get a fire on the ground it literally goes to the top of trees.

“The trees really flare up right from ignition.”

Mr Cooper, along with Jason Snell from Dalmeny and Patrick Waddell of Bermagui returned this week, after 28 days in the dry, burning Canadian wilderness, which has seen over 3000 fires since July.

With his name inked in on the overseas deployment register, he knew there was a chance he may get the call to pack his gear and fly half way around the world.

“There was a bit of media about so I had an idea it was on,” he said.

Mr Cooper said the Canadians believed in their ability, and the entire team was “on the same page”.

As team manager for 20 crew members broken into groups of five, Mr Cooper’s training in fighting fires in remote areas and experience tackling the 2016 Tasmanian bushfires was crucial to the effort.

Garry Cooper was one of three local fire fighters sent to Canada to tackle a 220,000 hectare blaze. Picture: Garry Cooper

Garry Cooper was one of three local fire fighters sent to Canada to tackle a 220,000 hectare blaze. Picture: Garry Cooper

“It was really intense, with a big focus on a community called Green Lake in the central midlands,” he said.

“It’s a big tourist area, with big dollar properties.

“One of our biggest accomplishments was to pull the fire up from impacting on that community.”

The mountain pine beetle has spent the last two decades ravaging the pine forests, killing trees and combined with the current drought, creating the perfect conditions for the fires.

“It’s all added to the volatility of the season,” Mr Cooper said.

“It was a great sense of accomplishment.”

Along with kilometres of hose pumping water from lakes and swamps, the teams on the ground also had support from the air, with Mr Cooper guiding skim planes in to douse the flames.

Crews from the ACT RFS, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and NSW Forestry Corporation also took the journey.

Jason Snell from Dalmeny, Patrick Waddell from Bermagui, and Gary Cooper from Bega at Merimbula Airport. Picture: Supplied.

Jason Snell from Dalmeny, Patrick Waddell from Bermagui, and Gary Cooper from Bega at Merimbula Airport. Picture: Supplied.

“The Canadians were grateful for us to be there because they’d been there since July, and they were keen for some help,” he said.

The team spent 12 to 14 hours a day on duty in the forest, over two week shifts, followed by just two days rest before being thrust straight back into it.

The team spent the first two weeks at the bottom end of the fire cleaning up, while the Canadians gauged their skills, before spending two weeks at the frontline of the fire.

“The conditions were starting to change when we left, the Autumn Fall was happening, and the fire had begun to calm down,” Mr Cooper said.

“People were being let back into homes, and infrastructure wasn’t under threat.

“I made some great friends, and have some life long memories,” Mr Cooper said.