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Back on home soil, Corner Brook's Joe Russell continues to follow Australian wildfire battle

Joe Russell, a member of the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources wildfire suppression staff, spent 38 days in Australia helping with the effort to combat wildfires. CONTRIBUTED
Joe Russell, a member of the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources wildfire suppression staff, spent 38 days in Australia helping with the effort to combat wildfires. CONTRIBUTED
CORNER BROOK, N.L. —

Joe Russell is calling his trip helping wildfire suppression efforts in Australia one of the highlights of his career.

The Corner Brook man, a member of the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources wildfire suppression staff, was one of 30 Canadian fire professionals sent to Australia on Dec. 21 to help combat the wildfires that have ravaged the country since June 2019.

Russell worked logistics — arranging meals and accommodations, providing facilities, services and materials for firefighters — as part of a 30-member incident management team at a fire management centre in Lithgow. The New South Wales city is about 140 kilometres from Sydney.

He returned home to Corner Brook on Jan. 26.

The experience was astonishing for Russell.

“To have the opportunity to go to the other side of the world and see how fire has affected that country and those states, it’s quite eye-opening,” he told The Western Star. “To be able to go there and to help was a natural high for myself.”

Russell said the situation had improved between the time of his arrival and his departure.

“By late January, in New South Wales, the fire situation there had gotten a whole lot better and some of the fires I had worked on were considered contained,” he said.

Russell felt Canadian fire professionals established a strong working relationship with the Australians. Some of them had worked together before in the British Columbia fires of 2017-18.

“They operate similar to what we do in our country,” he said. “We were able to jive together very well. Having the opportunity to work with these folks in the fire centres, that was great.”

Being away from home wasn’t easy, but Russell’s family supported his decision to go. When he returned, they celebrated Christmas together.

Russell continues to monitor the situation back in Australia, keeping an eye on the New South Wales Rural Fire Service Twitter page.

He keeps up-to-date on the number of fires, the hectares burning, the number of homes that have been lost and the resources being mobilized.

The province, as a member agency of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, is still helping with efforts in Australia, and continues to issue updates to him as well.

Russell believes his experience will help him in his work back home. He hopes to draw from his Australian experience while instructing incident command system courses in Corner Brook.

“It’s always great to have experience to draw from when you’re doing instructions,” he said. “I’ll have some takeaways from that (Australian visit) that I can use as examples in my line of work.”

When he spoke to The Western Star, Russell had been back to work for two weeks. Russell continues to help in a less direct way, conducting fitness testing for firefighters in the event the province sends firefighters to Australia.

“One of the other hats I wear is fitness test appraiser for firefighters,” he said. “I’ve done some fitness testing in Corner Brook and Gander over the last week and a half.”

However, it may not be necessary since Australia has been getting more rain recently.

“It’s really helping with the fires down there,” said Russell. “It’s re-evaluating whether they need replacement resources to come or not.”

Russell, himself, won’t be going back at this juncture, given his involvement in some of the programs the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources has coming up.

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