The U.S. Forest Service has sent Trinity County native Alex McBath to help fight the catastrophic wildfires in Australia.
McBath, deputy fire management officer for the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, got on a plane for Melbourne last Thursday and is scheduled to return in a month on Feb. 15. He didn’t have a lot of information at the time of his departure but told the Journal he was ready for a siege.
“What I am prepared for is fire activity like I’ve never experienced before,” said McBath, who is in his 31st season working for the Forest Service.
The Australian bushfires have burned tens of millions of acres and killed 29 persons.
Before he departed, McBath only knew he would be working in operations, which puts him either in the heat of the battle or managing firefighters who are.
“They have a lot of fires so I don’t know which one I’m going to yet,” he said last week.
McBath works out of the forest’s headquarters in Redding. He grew up in Weaverville and has also worked out of the district office here as fire management officer.
He’s worked with firefighters from Australia before, but at that time he was on the receiving end.
“It’s always those folks coming here and working under me,” McBath said, noting that he worked with Australian firefighters most recently on the Mendocino Complex fires.
“I’m really excited to pay back their hard work,” he said, “to be able to go there and help them out during their time of need.”
He expected it would take him a couple of days to become familiar with the firefighting systems in Australia, but added that like here, “It’s all about priorities – the values at risk and safety.”
“It’s all about the conditions, and Australia is facing unprecedented conditions right now,” McBath said. “Volatile fuels that spread very, very quickly.”
They appear to be facing the same type of wildland-urban interface issues found here, he noted.
The National Interagency Fire Center based in Boise, Idaho, is coordinating the deployment of firefighters from the United States.
The center reported earlier on Jan. 16 that 142 U.S. personnel were assigned to Australia. The number of U.S. personnel assigned up to that date was 164.
The assignments of Forest Service and Department of Interior fire personnel are based on requests from the Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council.
U.S. firefighters were filling critical wildfire and aviation management roles in New South Wales and Victoria, the center said in a news release.
The U.S., Australia and New Zealand have been exchanging fire assistance for more than 15 years. The most recent exchange occurred in August 2018, when 138 Australian and New Zealand wildfire personnel were sent to the United States for almost 30 days to assist with wildfire suppression efforts in Northern California and the Northwest. The last time the United States sent firefighters to Australia was in 2010.