One of Dan Purcell’s biggest challenges in fighting fires for six weeks in Australia was being away from his 10-year-old daughter at Christmas for the first time.
But this is normal life for Australian firefighters, the Nelson man says, because Christmas is in their fire season. One firefighter told Purcell he had been on a fire for the past five Christmases.
“Australians came over to help us in 2017 and 2018, and it is nice for us to be able to return the favour,” he says. “So if seven of us gave seven of them Christmas Day off so they could be with their family, that was pretty cool. To give back to them.”
Purcell is a firefighting veteran. He’s been at it for 25 years, and for 13 of those years he’s worked as an air attack officer, the job he took on in Australia, from which he returned about a month ago.
That involves flying over fires and directing air tankers, telling them where their drops should be.
“I was on the fire, in the field, daily, talking to the ground crews and co-ordinating the air crews, prioritizing with what the guys on the ground are doing. Our role was to support them.”
The job means knowing enough about wind, temperature, relative humidity, terrain, control lines and fuels to anticipate fire behaviour in constantly changing conditions.
Purcell was one of 20 Canadian firefighters split into four different locations.
He didn’t see the kinds of huge crown fires featured on news broadcasts from Australia. But it was still “very dramatic,” he said.
“Most of the fire behaviour I saw was ground fire, with a temperature of 47 degrees and relative humidity of eight per cent and the wind at 40 km/h. The fires were very aggressive.”
One big differences from B.C. forests was the large embers of eucalyptus tree bark that are much more dangerous than the embers we see in B.C.
“The pieces of stringy bark get pulled up into a convection column and is still basically on fire. As it releases out the other side, it starts spot fires. The spotting potential in Australia is extreme.”
Purcell says most Australian firefighting personnel were suffering from fatigue and worry, so he was glad to bring in some fresh energy.
“They were tired – the people in the office, the firefighters – and hoping for rain. They had been going for three to four months prior to us getting there, and they were just getting into their summer. This really worried them, and there was no rain in sight. They had never seen the level of drought.”
And they had never before seen rainforests burning – forests that would have stopped a fire in the past.
Purcell says he wasn’t in an area with devastated wild animal populations as seen on the media, but he saw large numbers of cattle affected by the drought.
He was impressed by the Australian people, whom he said were welcoming and open.
“I had a chat with a woman in a store in the small town I was in, and she asked me about my accent. I said I was from Canada and she asked what brought me to Australia.
“I told her, and she was very emotional, teary-eyed that someone had come such a long way to help.”