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For Tribe’s wildland firefighters, Australia blazes hit close to home

Nearly 28,000 square miles of Australia have been consumed by wildfires since September.

That land, more than 18 million acres, is larger than the states of New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maryland combined.

As of Jan. 13, 28 people have perished in the fires, nearly 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged and about 1 billion animals have been killed.

Summer in Australia is typically hot and dry, leading to fire season. This year the season is more intense and expected to last a few more months.

Fighting the out of control fires in New South Wales, the most populous state in the country and home to Sydney, has proved to be a challenge.

To alleviate some of the burden on Australian wildland firefighters, as of Jan. 7 the U.S. sent 159 wildfire and aviation management personnel including seven from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The U.S., Australia and New Zealand have been exchanging fire assistance for more than 15 years; the last time American wildland firefighters fought fires in Australia was in 2010.

The Sydney Opera House as it projected images of firefighters on its iconic exterior Jan. 11 as a tribute to firefighters who have been battling the Australian blazes. (Courtesy photo)

In June 2018, the Seminole Tribe hosted a few Australian wildland personnel and gave them a fact-finding tour of Big Cypress.

They came to learn how Native Americans manage their wildlands, deal with wild fires and respect Native customs and culture simultaneously. Australia doesn’t have the federal framework like the U.S. and Native Americans have in the BIA.

“The aborigines don’t have federal interaction with the Australian authorities to manage their land,” said Grant Steelman, ERMD fire management officer/forester. “The purpose of the trip was for aboriginal and Australian federal fire officers to see how they can work together by mirroring how Native American tribes and the federal government do.”

Chris Kemp, fire rescue assistant fire management officer, also went on the tour of Big Cypress with the Australians, which included a fire burning in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

“They explored our wildfires and are trying to get better acquainted with how we work in the U.S.,” Kemp said. “Their terrain and weather patterns are different than ours. I wish them the best of luck.”

Australian aborigines are more focused on ecological management of the land for their traditional uses, but according to Steelman, they are treated by the government as if they are doing illegal burns.

“They are working to move into those legal bounds,” Steelman said. “They are trying to do it successfully by focusing on educational and spiritual connections.”

The Australians’ takeaway from the trip was one that is a familiar issue in the U.S.

“They realized they had to get the historic attitudes out of the picture and understand that aborigines were going to have issues in the process,” Steelman said. “But the end goal is a healthier, more productive and more spiritual landscape. But they can’t do that without getting the old stereotypes out of the way.”

For 50,000 years Australia’s aboriginal people have been managing the land by focusing on prevention through prescribed burns of small, low intensity fires which have usually been successful in preventing the large out of control fires.

According to historian Bill Gammage, emeritus professor at Australian National University, the aborigines know what types of land to burn, when and for how long.

“Where the aboriginal people are in charge, they’re not having big fires,” Gammage said in an interview on CNN. “In the south, where white people are in charge, we are having problems.”

Like the aborigines, Seminoles are proactive with land management and understand the seasonality, climate and what flourishes on their land. Australia’s climate has monsoonal patterns; it is similar to the U.S. southwest and is dry before wind events and monsoons occur.

But like the southeast, their plants need prescribed burns to keep the landscape from getting out of control during fires.

“It’s made for fire over there,” Steelman said. “I heard that the land burned already is greater than the fires in the Amazon, Indonesia and California put together.”

The 2019 fires in the Amazon burned more than 2.3 million acres, in Indonesia more than 2.1 million acres burned and in California more than 259,000 acres burned. More than 18 million acres have burned in Australia so far.

The BIA crew will remain in Australia for about 30 days, which Steelman noted is an extended run. Fourteen days is more typical, but they have done 28 day rotations.

“That’s about as long as you can go without mental exhaustion,” Steelman said. “The physical exertion combined with the stress can lead to exhaustion. That’s when people get hurt. They [Australians] are in a bad way now and relief is not in sight. I would expect the U.S. to send more firefighters over time.”