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Emma Elsworthy

Traumatised Canadian firefighters may not be able to help Australia this summer

There’s no guarantee that Canadian firefighters who have just battled their worst wildfires will be able to help short-staffed brigades as Australia is bracing for its hottest and driest season since the deadly Black Summer bushfires.

Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) chief executive Kim Connors told Crikey the government-owned corporation was in “continuous communication” with the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council about the “evolving bushfire situation” and would “consider” any requests.

But he said Canadian personnel were suffering from “seasonal fatigue and [deteriorating] physical and mental health” after 18.5 million hectares went up in flames this year amid some 6,500 wildfires. It’s three times the country’s record inferno of 1995, and it led to the deaths of two Canadian firefighters.

Emergency sharing between the two allied nations has been taking place since the turn of the century, though the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience confirmed none had been requested since 2020, when nearly 100 Canadian fire experts were sent to help in Black Summer. This year, 627 Australian firefighters went to Canada (alongside volunteers from the US, Mexico and New Zealand).

International reticence is bad news for the short-staffed firefighting brigades across Australia as thousands of besieged rural residents have already been evacuated from fires — more than a month out from the first day of summer. In September, Disaster Relief Australia issued an urgent callout for volunteers to address a shortfall of 3,000 or so members — including a shortage of aviation firefighters and in fire crews in Victoria

A few things are causing declining numbers in emergency services, former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins told Crikey. Thousands of firefighters are suffering from PTSD after Black Summer, which was made then worse by the COVID-19 lockdowns preventing “vital debriefing and counselling”.

Also, Australia was battling an ageing workforce among firefighters as younger would-be volunteers who lived through the torrid wall-to-wall coverage of Black Summer were not putting their hand up like generations before them.

All of this was made worse by the longer burning and more widespread fires in both countries. During Black Summer in Australia, “every state and territory burned at the same time”, Mullins said, preventing firefighters from going interstate. It was the same in Canada this year — every one of the 10 provinces and three territories battled infernos.

It’s not just the number of boots on the ground, Mullins said. Also compromised were “major firefighting assets such as large water-bombing helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, all but two of which in Australia are leased from Canada and the USA”.

Amanda Lamont agrees. She’s a volunteer firefighter and the former head of the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience during Black Summer and told Crikey the emergency management sector was already working on ways to respond to “overlapping and cascading disasters” while helping our overseas counterparts. But it was getting harder: “There is a saying in firefighting that says you fight the fire you’ve got, not the one you might get.

“I see this sentiment changing. Where once resources may more readily have been deployed interstate or overseas, [they] are now potentially being held back because the risk of mega bushfires locally is growing and creating a more risk-averse approach.

“It comes at a time when the need for people to support each other and respond to extreme and overlapping disasters either informally through civic duty, or through formal emergency management arrangements, is growing.”

Lamont is also co-founder of the Australasian Women in Emergencies Network volunteer firefighters, and said it was now “beyond doubt” in the emergency management sector that climate change was accelerating more extreme, more frequent and overlapping disasters in Australia and around the world: “We no longer need to speak rhetoric on this topic — we just need to look out the window.”

Mullins warned there was no immediate fix to Australia’s firefighting shortage: “Australia cannot afford to replace volunteer firefighters with paid firefighters — there are about 300,000 emergency service volunteers in Australia and about 30,000 paid professionals.”

But he said the Albanese government must urgently fund more paid personnel in the short term, and nearly double the emissions reduction target to 75% in the longer term. (Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said yesterday he would announce an “achievable” new target “at an appropriate time”.)

“We need to face the fact that right now we are living with the consequences of decades of climate inaction,” Mullins said. “We have a moral duty to do everything we can to ensure that we are not dooming future generations to much worse than we’re already experiencing.”

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