A Cariboo Fire Centre senior protection operations officer returned home to Williams Lake overwhelmed by the volunteer commitment he witnessed while deployed to assist with Australia’s wildfire battle.
“A huge component of their firefighters are volunteer-based,” Darren Wilkinson told the Tribune. “Every time I thought we had exhausted the volunteer base there were more volunteers.”
Describing the volunteers as professional and dedicated, he said even the dispatchers are volunteers and come from the State Emergency Service (SES).
“They don’t fight fires, they provide support such as dispatching, logistics, all sorts of things,” he said of SES.
He worked alongside a jail guard, several retirees and a doctor who took a week off her practice to do dispatch.
“Their brigades would be very similar to our volunteer fire departments in our rural areas, there’s just more of them,” he added.
Quite a number of staff are paid, and there is a fire and rescue organization similar to professional structural protection fire departments in Canada, he said, noting National Parks and Wildlife Services and the Australia Defence Force were also part of the effort.
Wilkinson arrived in Australia on Dec. 5 and attended an in-country briefing the next day. On Dec. 7 he was deployed to Glen Innes, New South Wales, which he said reminded him of Williams Lake.
“It was about the same size of town, certainly a lot older, but agriculturally-based and very friendly, just like folks here in Williams Lake.”
The area he was in is known as the Table Lands because it is on a plateau, which also reminded him of the Chilcotin Plateau.
His task was to co-ordinate operations in support of people out in the field, similar to what he does in Williams Lake at the CFC.
“We had a host of fires, we identified priorities and what resources were required for each of those priorities. It was very familiar in nature to what it was here during some of our bad fire seasons where you had more fires than resources.”
The closest fires were about a 20 minute drive from the operations centre– the same as the distance to Meldrum Creek from Williams Lake — and the centre was managing an area in size similar to that of the CFC.
It was his first time going outside of Canada for firefighting.
He was part of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre in his deployment to Australia and a number of the people he travelled with from Canada he had worked with over the years in B.C. and other parts of the country.
During his month in Australia he also connected with a few people that had come to Williams Lake during the 2017 and 2018 wildfires.
Comparing fire seasons in B.C. to Australia, Wilkinson said 2017 was a long season for the Cariboo Fire Centre, while in Australia the season started in back in September.
“They are just now coming to the height of summer and have several more months ahead of them. They are obviously fatigued, they have been overwhelmed at times.”
Near Glen Innes there were more than 250 fires in the five weeks he was there, he added.
“That’s a lot of fires and they were getting more. Every time we felt that we were getting ahead we would get another lightning storm. The volunteers have put in countless hours. How they managed to survive during that duration of time, I don’t know?”
Wilkinson worked with people who had lost their homes, and some who had close family members in areas affected by fire that had no communications.
In advance of going to Australia, Wilkinson’s family enjoyed a Christmas dinner on Sunday, Dec. 1 because he would be away.
Both of his boys are going to college in Prince George so they came home for a bit.
He said he did not hesitate when the call came out for people to go to Australia.
“We were in a bad way in 2017 and 2018 and so many of those folks came over and helped us out. Some people might think it’s going to be a romantic experience, but I was in a building without windows working upwards of 12 to 14 hours a day. I did get a few days off and got to go to the coast, but for the duration I was working. It was as stressful as it is here.”
Jeff Austin, one of the CFC’s air attack officers, was deployed to Australia in the new year and is there now.
“Jeff is one of B.C.’s most experienced air attack officers and he is over there doing a very similar role,” Wilkinson said. “I would suggest that our air attack officers have been able to provide the Australians with a very good service.”