Fighting fire in the land down under

Members of U.S. Task Force Alpha, Group 5 at a briefing for the Upper Murray Fire in Victoria, Australia.


After a long 2019 fire season, I planned to spend the winter months relaxing and spending time with my family and friends, as well as catching up on work after being on the road fighting fire all summer. Those plans were short-lived. Fire activity moved to the southern hemisphere with Australia experiencing an unprecedented number of wildfires. Australia requested firefighting assistance from the United States through an international agreement, and I was one of the few chosen to deploy to the land down under.

The amazing group that I was assigned to—U.S. Task Force Alpha, Group 5—included firefighters from throughout the Bureau of Land Management. We joined together in Victoria, Australia for several days of briefings, then received our assignment to join various local government and volunteer firefighters. Task Force Alpha was comprised of 20 Americans plus an Australian liaison from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning in Victoria.

My experience was that the Australian Firefighters are a savvy, sound-minded, high-spirited group of individuals. A lot of their firefighting strategy and tactics were the same, as well as the equipment and personnel. The accents and local terminology took some getting used to. For instance, the Aussies would mention a safety zone being a “paddock,” which is a large pasture or field. Radio traffic would say, “bring over a ‘G’ wagon!” which in the U.S. is a Type 4 fire engine. “You have an ‘elvis’ heading your way!” means you have a skycrane or heavy helicopter heading your direction.

Fires in the United States burn in different fuel types throughout different regions. In Victoria, Australia, the mountainous fuel type was a continuous eucalyptus forest. It’s nearly impossible to use a direct fire suppression strategy due to the very high risk of fire weakened eucalyptus trees. They also pose a threat to long-range spotting, which involves embers starting wildfires miles ahead of the actual flaming front. This occurs because the burning eucalyptus bark shreds off in long stringy tubes that rise in the column of smoke and ash, then drop ahead of the main fire.

The Aussies used firefighting techniques that are like ours, which was a nice commonality. For example, indirect attack strategies, where firefighters use heavy equipment to clear ridgelines, old logging roads, current roads, and spur tracks (or simple dirt roads) to provide a fire break that allowed us to prepare for burnout operations. Burnout operations involve using fire in a controlled manner to remove the fuels between the main fire and the fire break, so that when the main fire reaches the burned area/fire break, there’s no vegetation left to burn, which usually results in diminished fire activity. We assisted the Australian folks in numerous burn-out operations because they felt comfortable with our knowledge and background.

The trip was one of the best firefighting experiences of my career. Both Aussie civilians and firefighters were extremely grateful for our hard work. I hope the U.S. continues to help with international efforts like this in the future, and that more U.S. firefighters have an opportunity to go overseas and help a country in need. I also hope Australia knows we’re grateful for the opportunity. I hope they find relief in the future and never hesitate to call if our skills are needed again!

Owen Johnson is the Assistant Supervisor on the Bureau of Land Management’s Unaweep Wildland Fire Module in Grand Junction, Colorado.