Kiwis called to Canadian firefight


When the Canadian Government put up its hands and said it needed help, New Zealand fire crews were quick to respond. Principal rural fire officer Stephanie Rotarangi and deputy principal rural fire officer Jamie Cowan were part of a national emergency team deployed to help Canada during one of its worst fire seasons in history.

Canada and New Zealand speak the same fire language.

That’s why, when fire came and Canada called, 16 rural fire officers from across New Zealand flew straight to Alberta and stayed there for 30 days tackling blazes – some covering up to 82,000ha.

Some of those had already been burning for three months, says Otago’s deputy principal rural fire officer, Jamie Cowan.

Queenstown-based Cowan, who returned from Canada last week, says a reciprocal agreement between the two countries meant rural firefighters could get “dumped right into incident management”.

Speaking the same “fire language” meant crews hit the ground running.

“Effectively, its [Canada’s] resources were very tight; it was trying to rotate guys, give them a few days off, and they benefited hugely from us coming in strong.”

When the initial request came in, teams across the country assessed who would be available to provide support, looked at what skills were needed, and then pulled the 16-strong team together.

Cowan’s first role was as a fire behaviour analyst, interpreting the weather, looking at what fuels were on fire, and assessing where the fire would go, how fast it would burn and what assets were at risk.

While the area of Alberta was particularly remote, it included property, small communities, forestry blocks, oil and gas infrastructure and overhead power lines, making the task more complex.

It was a big job.

Cowan and his team had 200 Canadian firefighters, 15 helicopters, six bulldozers and six excavators at its disposal.

“Canadians refer to a fire complex, rather than a single fire – the scale is so huge.”

During the first 14 days, his team dealt with eight fires that had been burning for three months before their arrival and would continue to burn after they left.

“We had a total fire perimeter of 530km to look after. The sheer scale of this is probably one of the biggest learnings for us as a crew.”

Rural fire in New Zealand was essentially a “suppression engine”, he says.

“We put fires out; that is what we do. Over there, they don’t put fires out. They modify and massage fires to try to protect assets and limit damage.”

While the New Zealand team were in Canada, more than 500,000ha of land was on fire.

One of the other difficulties was understanding fuel types. He drew comparisons with wilding pines in Otago but said swamp land was particularly challenging.

Referred to as “muskeg” in Canada, it made tackling fires more difficult. Machinery could sink, bulldozers could not be taken to some areas and the ground essentially burned like peat. Even moisture did not dampen fires; they simply burned over the marshland.

One new piece of technology he used was geo-referenced PDF maps on smart devices, instead of paper maps.

“It gives you the ability to electronically notate the maps and add things like fire runs, crew locations, at-risk structures – all while out navigating.”

The technology was not widely used in Otago but Cowan had adopted it since his return.

One month spent in Canada was the equivalent of a couple of years’ experience for a New Zealand firefighter, he reckoned.

While the agreement with the Canadian Government is reciprocal, he says it was highly unlikely the Canadians would be called to fight fires here. 

“By the time you turn a team out of Canada it would take five days. A wildfire at home in five days has reached the top of the mountain, or run to the sea, and burned itself out.”

Cowan will complete a debrief with other team members and see what elements of their Canadian experience can be adopted for the Otago region.