It’s hard to think of a more harrowing month than the one RFS volunteer Peter Symons has just experienced.
Fourteen 12-hour days back-to-back with only two days rest before another fourteen days on the ground; sleeping in a tent alongside 500 others in a foreign country; and the whole time coming face-to-face with roaring wildfires that have burned through 5000 square kilometres of land.
That was the life for him and five others from Tumut, National Parks and Wildlife Service staff Ben Dickson, Rob Gibbs, Brendon Howard, Elouise Peach and Tony Stubbs, for the past month, as part of Australia’s resource-sharing deal with Canada in times of emergency.
“It was very physical, it was very different to anything I’d experienced in Australia,” he said.
“You’re in the RFS because it’s how you want to help your community. I’d seen a bit on the TV about how bad their fires were in Canada, so I was interested in that, in seeing how I could help, and also it’s obviously an adventure and you get to see somewhere different in the world.
“Even though it was hard – probably even harder than I thought it was going to be – I enjoyed it, it was challenging. I wouldn’t jump on a plane tomorrow and head back but in a few months time maybe I’d be up to it.
“It was worthwhile and I learned a lot, and the Canadians I hope learned a lot from how we fight fires as well.”
Peter said there were a number of major differences in firefighting in Canada compared to the conditions in Australia.
We’re used to bushfires blazing through eucalypts come summer, but over there it’s mostly conifers – which have their own problems. A lot of the time, he was also dealing with the fire moving into the ground itself.
“The top layer of the soil has a lot of organic material on it, so you had to dig down to the mineral earth using hand tools,” he said.
“The roots of the trees burn underground as well, so you had to dig to where the root was burning underground so that you could wet it.
“You could just see smoke coming out of a hole and you have to dig until you find the source.”
However, one advantage the Canadians do have is that their landscape is filled with plentiful, vast water sources. Canadian firefighters typically use long lengths of hose across a firebreak to attack the blaze, confident that they won’t be more than 5 kilometres from the nearest lake or river.
“Another big difference for us was that the firefighting where we were based was at times close to 2000 metres in elevation, so wind direction plays a really big part in the firefighting,” explained Peter.
Peter, a volunteer with the RFS who is part of their highly skilled ‘Remote Access Fire Team,’ is an employee of Snowy Hydro, to whom he said he is grateful for allowing him the time off to help Canada with their wildfires.
“I think it’s fantastic that my employer let me have this opportunity – it says a lot about them as a community-minded company,” he said.