Flood on the fireground: a day in the life of an American task force in Australia.

Burned debris washed into the Tambo River by heavy rains along the Great Alpine Road in Victoria, Australia.


In a matter of minutes, the road became a river. 

I've seen plenty of flash floods while living in the American southwest. Watching, smelling, listening to water roar down a remote desert canyon can be thrilling. 

This flood felt sobering.

Water sheeting down charred slopes. Topsoil flowing over roads like slurry. Rivers choked with burned debris. In every direction a reminder that recovery from Australia's unprecedented bushfire season lay far in the future.

* * *

The day began routinely at the base camp in Swifts Creek, Victoria: a farming and timber town of a few hundred souls with little more than the requisite (for rural Australia) bakery and pub. Clear skies and no wind. Apart from the generators providing power to the camp kitchen, the only sounds at sunrise were an assortment of wildly unfamiliar birds and the bleating of lambs in a nearby pasture.


A view of the Swifts Creek Base Camp in Victoria, Australia.

After breakfast and a briefing, I joined the American firefighters of Task Force 3B: a collection of 20 federal employees from Oregon and Washington deployed to Australia to help manage this year’s historic bushfires. Our two countries have shared wildfire personnel since the early 2000s. This year marks the sixth time we've sent people to Australia. The Australians have returned the favor in equal measure. The United States also maintains formal partnerships with Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. 

Along with the Americans I met their Australian liaison, Greg. A wildlife conservation officer by day, Greg is one of many Australians whose regular jobs were put on hold when the bushfires started. Up to 75% of Australia's bushfire response is made up of people who voluntarily serve when needed. Greg spent this assignment with Task Force 3B as a guide, interpreter, coworker, and by the end of their 30-day tour, friend. 

A group of American and Australian firefighters holding an Australian Flag.

The members of US Task Force B and their Australian Liaison at the end of their deployment in Victoria, Australia. This interagency team consisted of federal employees from the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Our caravan of trucks was soon underway. While many members of this group had never met or worked together before, they moved with incredible efficiency. Few words were needed to create organized action. More than once I had the sense that they were all telepathic.

We rode in an assortment of diesel trucks unavailable in the United States and the envy of nearly every American firefighter I met. We made a quick stop at the Swifts Creek depot (pronounced dep-oh, not deep-oh) for gas and supplies. A depot conveniently located next to the Swifts Creek Bakery. We’d been encouraged to help support the local economy. What better way than by grabbing second breakfast? A flat white and a meat pie to go.

The coffee in Australia is delicious. There's no drip. Anywhere. All roadside coffee—bakery, gas station, doesn't matter—is espresso. The terminology is different too: a flat white is espresso with steamed milk. It's like a latte, but different in ways that defy my palate and ability to describe food.

Speaking of food, Australians like to get their savory on in the morning. In addition to an assortment of morning sweets—cinnamon rolls, scones, etc., all made on site—most bakeries have a warm case filled with a variety of personal pastry pies stuffed with meat and vegetables. I imagine the staff of the Swifts Creek Bakery was sad to see the firefighters head home.

The day's objective was the continuation of a previous assignment marking, falling, and clearing hazard trees along the Benambra-Corryong Road in the “Australian Alps.” Though smaller than their Swiss cousins (the highest peak is 6,600 feet above sea level), these mountains are the only part of Australia where deep snow can be found in winter. 

The drive to the work site was stunning for the color. In just a few weeks rains had transformed the Australian landscape from crispy brown to verdant green. As we climbed into the mountains and onto the firegrounds, the scene changed instantly to a blackened forest of eucalyptus. Like many trees, eucalypts survive fire as long as it isn't too intense. Within weeks of having all its leaves burned off, eucalypts can sprout small shoots along their trunks that leaf out and begin photosynthesizing to keep the tree alive while the canopy regrows.

Here the forest either burned too recently or too intensely: there was no sign of regrowth.


An epicormic shoot on a burned eucalyptus tree along the Great Alpine Road in Victoria, Australia. These shoots emerge soon after a fire, allowing the tree to continue photosynthesizing while the canopy regrows.

Recent landslides fanned across the road in several spots. The road was closed to the public, so the only traffic was from crews like us working to make it safe. One slide slowed us to a crawl as we picked our way across sharp rocks. A truck blew a tire. “That’s the sixth flat we’ve had,” I was told. Earlier I’d heard an American firefighter describe driving in Australia this way: “I grew up on a ranch. I’ve never spent so much time driving in four low as I have in the last few weeks.” Fingers were crossed as they tightened the lug nuts on the last spare that would fit the truck.

Well-caffeinated, well-fed, and restless from driving, the crew geared up quickly once we arrived. Within minutes yellow shirts darted through the forest, assessing trees and painting a big yellow K (for killer) on anything that looked like it might fall on the road in a future storm. 

Behind the painters, five teams of two — a faller and a swamper — fanned out and began cutting. The fallers sized up each tree, cleared a work area and escape route, and yelled out warnings ("back cut, tree coming down, toward the road!") while making a series of cuts to drop the tree. The swampers cleared brush out of the way and carried a collection tools, gas, oil, food, and water as they moved down their assigned stretch of road.

A firefighter cuts a tree with a chainsaw next to another tree with a large K spray painted on its trunk.

US firefighter Chanel Sitz cuts a hazard tree along the Benambra-Corryong Road in the Australian Alps.

Opening roads has been a priority for Australia for months now. Bushfires forced the closure of major routes throughout the country, many in areas normally busy with families enjoying their summer vacations. Thousands of people had to be evacuated by boat when fires threatened the town of Mallacoota, Victoria. Most of the American firefighters deployed to Australia spent time cutting and clearing hazard trees along roads, power lines, and other infrastructure burned over by bushfire.

This U.S. crew included some of the best fallers in the country, and it showed. They worked quickly and confidently from one problem tree to the next while keeping up a friendly banter with the swamper and fielding a steady stream of questions from me. In four hours they assessed and cleared five kilometers of road.

* * *

Before we left the work site, the crew grabbed a bite to eat and refurbished their saws. They sharpened chains and cleaned air filters because readiness is part of the firefighter code. All day it had been the kind of weather you don’t even notice because it's so nice. Temps in the 60s. No wind. Sun raking through the trees below blue skies dotted with friendly-looking cumulus clouds.

As we headed down the mountain it became clear the weather was about to change. Lightning strobed the dark face of an approaching storm front. The rain arrived without preamble. A few drops hit the windshield and then instantly a gush of water and hail made it impossible to see the road at all. 

We stopped. I climbed out to find water running everywhere. Removed by fire, there was no ground cover to slow the rain or channel it into gullies and culverts. It was sheeting off the hill above us and bringing a bunch of soil with it. The view was even more alarming looking down from the road cut. It felt like scouting a chocolate rapid, the water gathering speed and sediment as it churned down a landscape normally held together by plants.

Then a radio call. One of the larger landslides had so much water flowing over and through it that it could no longer be crossed. The flood was also eating away at the road, biting off big chunks so that the two-lane road was slowly shrinking to one. And part of our group was stuck on the other side. Then someone radioed to say that their vehicle was suddenly resting on not one, but two flat tires.

It felt like the beginning of an epic story that would require a lengthy after-action review. But this situation was no match for 20 skilled firefighters with hand tools and saws (see above mention of 5 kilometers in 4 hours). The flat tires were replaced. The rain subsided enough that with a little scraping and shoveling we were on the road again and back in time for dinner (see video synopsis at the bottom of this post).


US Task Force members drive across flood debris after smoothing out a portion of the Benambra-Corryong Road in the Australian Alps.

* * *

Despite the successes (and near misses) of the day, even now my thoughts keep returning to the flooding: how water can ravage a recently burned landscape, and how much recovery lies ahead for Australia. We've had bad fires, and bad fire years, in the United States. The Australian bushfires burned four times more than we ever have...over 40 million acres. That's like fire sweeping across all of New England and stopping just short of the Canadian border.

The work done by this task force will have to be repeated for months, if not years. Witnessing the slow grind of recovery made me realize how much the expense and drama involved in suppressing fires draws the spotlights. But in terms of time and effort, wildfire is mostly about what's next—for communities, for ecosystems, and for humankind's relationship with fire.

Neal Herbert is a Public Affairs Specialist with the Office of Wildland Fire. View more photos from this story at flickr.com/usinterior. A video showing scenes of the flooding on the Benambra-Corryong Road is included below.


Flooding on the Benambra-Corryong Road (Victoria, Australia)