AUSTRALIA – Spending her holidays in the land down under, Banff National Park fire management officer Jane Park was one of 95 Canadians deployed in December to battle the wildfires consuming Australia.
“It seemed the right thing to do at the time given what was going on over there … it was an easy decision to make,” Park said.
“My family was very supportive and recognized what a learning opportunity this could be.”
After arriving in Australia on Dec. 3, Park said she came to understand how meaningful the choice to journey to the country was because the firefighters she worked with highlighted how the Canadians' arrival was able to facilitate them spending time with their families during the Christmas holidays. She added that this was a rarity for many of the Australian first responders because the holidays fall at the height of the country's wildfire season.
Park added that upon her return to Canada on Jan. 9, her strongest memories from the trip have been the human aspect of the wildfire's path of destruction, largely in part because the Australians she encountered were generous and kind in welcoming her to the country.
“There were amazing people that we worked with, we were very fortunate,” Park said.
“People were very grateful for us to be there and were generous with their knowledge and generous with their culture.”
The human impacts she encountered on the trip were relatively new to Park in firefighting career. She said the scope and scale of the destruction many communities faced was overwhelming.
“We were serving a good purpose in terms of giving rest to the firefighters and the IMT members that were there working since last fall and the local people who may have gone through loses of structures, or firefighters or civilians who may have died during these events,” Parks said.
“It’s a reminder that the fire season can have a greater scope then people are used to in Canada.”
Park served as a planning officer while battling the fires. Her job involved strategic planning based on the behaviour of the fire to try and predict where the flames could potentially go. This, in turn, allowed her to communicate the best plan of attack in terms of containing the fire.
“A lot of what we saw, because we were on the fire after it had stabilized somewhat, it was very similar to what we see in Canada,” Park said. “There were realities of the fire potential in terms of the spotting potential … that we typically do not get in Canada. “
The flame battled in the area of Kempsey was comparable to wildfires that have been seen in the Kootenay and Waterton areas.
“The fire we were on was quite active just prior to when we got there,” Park said.
“We didn’t see anything that was too different from our experience at home.”
Park added her time fighting the fires in Australia drove home how fortunate Canada is that the country has not faced a similar situation – especially with the vast remote wilderness that covers the country.
There were key differences working in the southern hemisphere, Park said, explaining that chatting with locals helped her understand the most efficient way to battle the blaze using a synthesis of Australian and Canadian knowledge.
“Some of those types of aspects, like the way topography interplays with fire behaviour, are the same because of the physical nature of fire,” Park said.
“But then there is understanding the volatility of the fuels down there, different weather patterns, how the vegetation is laid out on the landscape is obviously quite different.”
She was sent to a fairly mountainous area in Australia, Park said, explaining that in some ways it was similar to the topography that can be found in Banff National Park, but that there were differences. A striking distinction being that the Candian Rockies have natural barriers like rock and ice that can aid in preventing the spread of a fire.
The biggest challenge lay in the initial orientation of working in a new and different area.
“Your mind's eye fills it with what your familiar with,” Park said.
“When we're talking about slopes and forests I picture Canada ... so I think the most challenging part was to switch that mental image to what the reality is in Australia in terms of what their fuels were, what the terrain looked like.”
Park said she described the experience as “hitting a pause button on what you know about Canada” to better understand how the fire would behave in Australia.
One of the biggest differences she found in regards to fighting fires in Australia was the ability to have major ground resources available.
“On Canadian fires, we generally have a lot of remote firefighters, people who can go off roads and go to inaccessible areas through aircraft,” Park said.
“[In Australia], we had access to a lot of vehicle-based suppression resources – that was something to get adjusted to.”
Severe fire season put pressure on the available resources, she said, and this affected their planning and the tactics they could employ.
These logistics required some adjustments to the different system and it took time to adapt and understand where they fit in when it came to fighting the fire.
“The generosity from the Australians definitely helped in terms of adjusting,” Park said, adding that she learned important lessons fighting the fire that will aid them in finding success in their work back in Canada.
Australian firefighters have a lot of unique technology they employ while fighting fires that have been inspired by previous experience working under the pressure of extreme fire situations, she said, explaining that she will have the opportunity to share what she saw there.
“What we’re hoping to do is convey what we did see there in terms of what technology they have to both communicate within fire management agencies and out to the public and see how that might look in our agency,” Park said.
“Obviously it’s a bit early to tell whether it’s feasible.”
Now that she is back in Canada, Park said she will complete after-action reviews with different government agencies to share what she learned in Australia.
The fire behaviour knowledge she experienced was also invaluable because she was able to work at protecting assets and communities that will be transferable to the Bow Valley area.
The key benefit of her trip to the land down under, Park said, is the crucial relationships and beneficial connections she fostered with people in fire management in Australia.
“That knowledge exchange between the two countries I think will be pretty good in terms of if we start talking about tech transfer and that sort of thing,” Park said. “That will be very helpful to not just me personally but to our agency in terms of our fire management program.”