OTTAWA — Nearly 100 Canadian fire experts have been sent to Australia to help battle one of the worst wildfire seasons the country has ever seen, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told his Australian counterpart Wednesday the country is ready to do more.
In a phone conversation with Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Trudeau “expressed his condolences and sorrow on behalf of all Canadians for the deaths and destruction caused by the wildfires,” a statement from Trudeau’s office said afterward, and for “the major loss of wildlife and natural devastation.”
“He recalled Australia’s past generous assistance to Canadian firefighters when wildfires spread through Canadian communities,” the statement went on.
A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said all Australia has requested so far is more people.
Canada has offered money and equipment to aid other countries in the past, including a $15-million offer of cash and temporary use of some water-bombers when the Amazon rain forest was on fire in Brazil and Bolivia last summer. Global Affairs Canada has not yet said whether any of that money flowed or if the water-bombers were deployed.
University of British Columbia biology professor Karen Hodges said it is common for the international firefighting community to share resources and expertise in times of need.
“Whenever there are catastrophic wildfires other countries are willing to help,” she said.
Australian firefighters, alongside Americans, Mexicans, and New Zealanders, came to Canada in 2018 to help British Columbia beat back the worst fire season that province has ever seen.
The Australian national council for fire and emergencies said Wednesday 97 Canadians have deployed to Australia to help this season along with 159 Americans and others from New Zealand. One group of Canadians arrived to cheers and applause as they pushed through the doors into the airport arrivals area in Sydney on Jan. 6.
Angela Bogdan, the Canadian consul general in Australia, greeted the group and told them the Australians are extremely grateful for their help.
“I cannot underscore enough that in making this long journey you’ve brought hope and reassurance to these people,” said Bogdan.
The first group of 21 experts who arrived in early December headed home Wednesday, as another group of eight arrived. New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian tweeted a thank-you to them Wednesday, saying “NSW won’t forget what you have done.”
Most of the Canadians are there to help with aviation, logistics and fire behaviour, while Australia relies heavily on local volunteer firefighters to battle the blazes.
Widespread drought and multiple heatwaves are creating perfect conditions for fires, which have scorched millions of hectares of bushland since October. Australian sources seem to differ on how much land has burnt.
Fire agencies in New South Wales and Victoria, the two most populated states in Australia, reported on their websites that there were 3.9 million hectares and 1.2 million hectares of fires, respectively, burning on their territories right now. In New South Wales, 136 fires are being tracked, 36 of them out of control.
Officials in Australia say 25 people have been killed in the fires.
Last year was a bad year for fires in many parts of the world including in Russia, Angola, Indonesia and California. Environment experts say climate change is largely to blame for an increase in fire risk.
Hodges said in Australia, there are often many small, cooler-burning fires that take out dead scrub brush and grasses but don’t destroy the tree canopy. She said the difference this year is that because of drought and heat, the fires are burning hotter and far more trees are succumbing to the flames.
More than half a billion animals are believed to have perished in the fires.
Hodges said it will take Australia “decades” to recover the trees that have been lost.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.
Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press