A trio of Los Padres National Forest personnel were tapped for their specialized skills and sent Down Under this month to assist firefighters in containing the wildfires that continue to ravage huge portions of territory in Australia.
The team consists of Santa Maria resident Tony Martinez, and Matt Aoki and Eric Verdries.
The fires are a series conflagrations that have scorched more than 46 million acres and killed at least 30 people since the country’s fire season began in September 2019.
Additionally, more than a billion animals are estimated to have perished in the fires, according to University of Sydney ecologists.
As of Friday, some of the most recent fires were burning on the southeastern coast of Australia near the border of New South Wales and Victoria, according to MyFireWatch, an online map developed by the state of Western Australia that tracks fires.
Martinez, a Type 1 logistics section chief based at the Mt. Pinos Ranger District, arrived in Melbourne on Jan. 18 following a 14-hour flight from California, according to Los Padres spokesman Andrew Madsen.
The other two—Aoki, a Hot Shot superintendent and Verdries, a fire prevention technician—left for Australia earlier in the month.
The three are among 176 personnel from the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior deployed to Australia to fight fires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
According to Madsen, Australian firefighters requested help, specifically from people like Martinez because he holds the logistics section chief qualification.
Martinez said he is a section chief on one of three incident management teams requested by Australian firefighters.
“The Aussies have come stateside to assist the Forest Service in more of our more extreme fires,” Madsen said. “In a way, we’re returning the favor.”
Leaving on a Thursday, Martinez crossed the International Dateline and arrived on a Saturday, a 19-hour time difference between the two coasts.
Upon arriving in the state of Victoria, Martinez was greeted by personnel from the U.S. Consulate and local fire teams, who trucked him to the command base to get briefed on efforts to fight the Tambo Complex fire.
It’s a 30-day assignment, Madsen said, which is twice as long as fire assignments in the U.S.
Martinez will be working long, 14- to 16-hour days for two straight weeks, after which he’ll receive a mandatory two-day break before restarting the second half of his assignment.
Although Martinez won’t be on the front lines, he’ll fill a critical role as a logistics chief, making sure equipment is ordered, brought in and distributed, according to Madsen.
Martinez added he’s also involved with paramedics, treating injured firefighters pulled from the fire line, and establishing radio communications on frequencies used by fire personnel.
“Basically, we build small cities to support thousands of firefighters,” Martinez said. “In Australia, they do it a little bit differently.”
Instead of large fire command bases, Martinez said the Australians have smaller camps to manage the fires spread over a large geographic area.
Martinez described the schedule as hectic, adding that the Australian firefighters have been though a lot.
It’s not easy for the American firefighters, either.
A Coulson Aviation C-130 water tanker went down over the Snowy Monaro area of New South Wales on Thursday, according to the state’s Rural Fire Service, killing all three U.S. firefighters on board.
Australia’s fire season is far from over, Martinez said, adding that the country’s season runs opposite to California’s.
The conditions Australian firefighters face are comparable to July in California, he said, with the most intense part of the season yet to come.
“August is our worst time of year back home,” Martinez said, adding that he’s experienced a few hot days so far, with a little reprieve from light rain. “It’s hotter and drier and that’s what they’re facing, another month of hotter and drier.”
Like in California, Australia has the same kind of dry, brushy terrain that provides the fuel for devastating wildfires.
“These fires are more intense, they move quicker, they chew up more acres and at a quicker rate of speed,” Madsen said. ”That’s kind of the new normal.”