Ice, fire, back to ice

Beth Ipsen

After a month helping firefighting efforts in Australia, BLM Alaska Fire Service Associate Manager Kyle Cowan left the 112-degree weather in Sydney, and returned on to 33-below-zero temperatures in Fairbanks Jan. 5.

“It was brutal,” Cowan said about the 145-degree difference.

Cowan was the first of six BLM Alaska Fire Service employees trading the Alaska winter for Australia’s summer to help with the country’s unprecedented fire season.

Cowan was the first of six BLM AFS employees trading the Alaska winter for Australia’s summer to help with the country’s unprecedented fire season. Alaska Interagency Coordination Center Manager Ray Crowe joined Cowan as a liaison in mid-December. The others are Training Specialist Adam Kohley as a food unit leader; firefighters Alaska Smokejumper Evan Karp and Chena Hotshot Dylan Brooks; and Air Tanker Base Manager Ted Plumlee.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of Jan. 14 there were 166 federal firefighting personnel from the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior deployed to a variety of firefighter, wildfire and aviation management roles New South Wales and Victoria. More than 60 are BLM employees.

Part of the reason why Australia’s fire season has been so severe is the dominant vegetation for burning, bushes and eucalyptus trees, have been stressed by prolonged dry, hot conditions. Much like black spruce in Alaska, eucalyptus trees produce resin that, combined with its oily leaves, is very flammable and can cause a fire to spot ahead for miles.

This has resulted in more 24 million acres burned across the country. More importantly 28 people died in connection to the bushfires, including five Australian firefighters.

More BLM AFS personnel have signed up to deploy if needed to fill requests NIFC predicts could continue to March – about the time when BLM AFS starts training for Alaska’s fire season.

All foreign firefighters undergo orientation briefings in the first few days of their deployment that include learning about the weather, the vegetation type, the different equipment, the different terminology augmented by the Aussie accents, and the different critters in the Land Down Under. Learning to drive on the left side of the road and sitting on the right side of the car was very hard to get used to, Cowan said.

 

Two firefighters standing by car
BLM Alaska Fire Service Associate Manager Kyle Cowan is pictured here with Mike Davis of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service warehouse.

As a liaison working out of the New South Wales State Operations Centre in Sydney, Cowan navigated pay matters and synchronized firefighting abilities for the incoming Americans with needs on the ground. After accomplishing these tasks, he was able to visit the roughly 50 American firefighters in the field throughout NSW. With Cowan’s return to Alaska, welcoming and guiding firefighters through their deployments, taking care of their administration and checking on them in the field was turned over to Crowe and National Park Service Alaska Regional Fire Management Officer Chuck Russell.

Firefighter Kyle Cowan standing with his gear in an airport.
BLM Alaska Fire Service Associate Manager Kyle Cowan is packed and ready to go at the Fairbanks International Airport Dec. 2 for two-days of travel at the start of his month-long deployment to Australia.

Cowan said the Canadians and Americans injected a moral boost to Australia’s mostly volunteer firefighting force that has battled the bushfires for about five months. Cowan said it was clear the Australians were tired, but they are very proud of their duty as volunteers.

“At that time, we were small in number, but pretty mighty in morale,” Cowan said. “Even if it was just being able to give a person a day off” or bringing in fresh energy and ideas.

“(Australians) are major coffee lovers. Sometimes it was just as simple as buying a cup of coffee,” he said. “They’re just the nicest people that I could have ever imagined.”