More than 1,000 UK firefighters have signed up to a voluntary scheme to help their volunteer comrades fighting bush fires in Australia.
The fires that have been raging in Australia since September last year are an environmental disaster with many people blaming climate change for making the situation desperate. More than 800 million animals have been killed and 10 people have died in the fires – including fire volunteers Geoffrey Keaton, Andrew O’Dwyer and Samuel McPaul.
Air quality is severely compromised and the Australian Medical Association has warned that this will result in deaths, particularly among those with already reduced lung capacity. The Australian Environment Protection Authority has issued an asbestos warning.
Mark Chapman, chair of the Hampshire Fire Brigades Union and one of the firefighters that has volunteered to help, said: “It’s been really arduous for them and it’s taking its toll on the firefighters – and they are all volunteers. They have been supported well by Australian and New Zealand firefighters and UK firefighters want to do their bit.
“In the first 48 hours [of the scheme being set up] over 600 firefighters put their names down to volunteer, which shows the strength of their feeling that firefighters really want to help.”
The group organising the relief effort is Tunnel2Towers Run UK, which was set up after the 7/7 London bombings in 2005 and has assisted in disaster relief around the world. Steve Janes, its chief officer, said he had more than 1,250 UK fire fighters volunteering to help. He said: “That’s almost a regiment, which shows just how much we care about our colleagues in Australia.”
Janes is in talks with the Australian government and a major airline to fly volunteers out. He explained that the UK firefighters would not be helping to put out the bush fires as they are not qualified to do that, but instead would instead be supporting role. Australian fire crews use ‘burn back skills’, that involving burning off areas to create fire breaks, which UK fire crews do not have experience of.
Making a cricket analogy he said: “We are going out at a lower entry of the batting order and making sure that the tops batsman can do their job”.
The sort of work would involve logistic roles such as helping to make sure equipment, water and food that firefighters need was in the right place at the right time, organising volunteers into useful deployment, and ensuring areas are safe for people once a fire had been put out. This would include making sure infrastructure was there and is safe – buildings and trees, for example, are at risk of collapse, and drinking water could be contaminated.
Janes said the Australian crews are struggling to carry out this essential work because they still battling the fires.