There are 90 active wildfires in Alberta, Canada, and more than 20,000 people have been evacuated from their homes because of shifting fire conditions. Photo / Government of Alberta Fire Service via AP
Six Bay of Plenty firefighters have volunteered to help fight wildfires raging across western Canada.
The firefighters were being deployed to the province of Alberta yesterday as part of a 25-strong taskforce from Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ).
They will spend six weeks helping crews from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. They will also be joined by 200 firefighters from Australia.
Lake Ōkāreka volunteer firefighter Phil Muldoon is a self-employed carpenter and father of three.
He said he had “quite a few clients” to call as he was packing his bags. “To their credit, they were all very understanding.”
Muldoon has been a volunteer firefighter for 25 years and has been deployed to Canada before.
“I’ve also been to the United States, Australia about five times and I’ve had quite a few national deployments.”
The biggest bushfires Muldoon has helped fight were the Black Summer bushfires north of Sydney in 2019. The 2019-20 bushfire season was the worst in Australia’s history.
Muldoon said the different types of vegetation and geography in Canada made a big difference in how the fires spread.
“The volatility is horrendous and on such a large scale.
“You have to be very aware of the situation and how things can escalate quickly. You always have to have safety in mind.”
He said the crew selected for this deployment all had experience fighting big wildfires. It didn’t take him long to prepare once confirmation of the deployment came through.
“The more you do [things like this] the quicker you get at it. I had the basic gear on hand. You know what gear you have to prepare and most of it we have on standby.”
Taskforce leader Jamie Rhodes, from Whakatāne, has been a volunteer firefighter for 27 years and is the Eastern Bay Volunteer Fire Brigade’s deputy controller.
Rhodes works as a utilities engineer at Fonterra. But when the call went out last week for volunteers to help the Canadian fire services, he didn’t hesitate.
“I just want to help,” he said.
“At work, they’re very good. They encourage this sort of stuff. The guys I work with will cover for me.”
Rhodes has previously been deployed to the US and Australia to fight fires. “The biggest fire I’ve fought was the Mendocino fire in California.”
That event was a network of wildfires that burned through northern California for three months in 2018.
“Once you get to those bigger fires, everything is bigger and more volatile. Everything is different.”
Rhodes said he and the team wouldn’t know their assignments until they got to Canada.
“When we get in-country, we’ll get a briefing where the agencies we’re working with tell us how we do stuff. Then we all get split up. You never know where you’re going to end up.”
This week, the news agency AP reported smoke from the raging wildfires in western Canada had drifted south into the US and prompted the states of Colorado and Montana to issue air quality alerts.
FENZ deputy national commander Steph Rotarangi said there were about 90 active blazes in Alberta and more than 20,000 people had been evacuated from their homes because of shifting fire conditions.
“The situation in western Canada is significant, with large wildfires burning across the area just north of the US-Canada border,” Rotarangi said.
“A particular drought through the province of Alberta has lingered since their autumn, with fire activity starting early: over 500 fires and over 750,000 hectares burned to date in their spring.
“Fighting fires of this magnitude is a hugely demanding task. We’re happy to provide support to our Canadian colleagues.
“It’s extremely tough firefighting conditions in Canada just now with unseasonably hot, tinder-dry weather and shifting wind elevating the risk of wildfires spreading in an area already under pressure.
“Deploying overseas is a valuable development opportunity for those involved. It gives them experience in different environments that they can bring back here and apply to New Zealand wildfires.”
Bay of Plenty firefighters being deployed to Canada:
- Jamie Rhodes, taskforce leader, Eastern Bay Volunteer Fire Brigade
- John Sutton, incident commander, Bay of Plenty District Office
- Phil Muldoon, firefighter, Lake Ōkāreka Volunteer Fire Brigade
- Mike Bridge, firefighter, Eastern Bay Volunteer Fire Brigade
- Roger Nelson, firefighter, Lake Taupō Volunteer Fire Brigade and Rotorua Office
- Ken Hussey, firefighter, Lake Taupō Volunteer Fire Brigade