By Michael Doran
Healesville firefighter Tim McKern has returned home after a five week deployment fighting wildfires in the US.
“This was my first deployment to the US but I have previously worked on fires in British Columbia, Canada,” he said.
“This time I was stationed in Washington State, south-east of Seattle.”
Australia has resource-sharing agreements in place with the US, Canada and New Zealand that allow the exchange of personnel, knowledge, skills and equipment in times of emergency.
“Basically once one of the agencies reaches their capacity they will reach out for help,” Mr McKern said.
“Generally it is in middle-management, supervisory or strike-team roles that they request help.
“In this fire I was working as a field safety officer, ensuring the systems were in place and functioning to ensure the welfare of the crews on the ground.”
When asked about adjusting to the US environment, he said “there is a consistency in tactics, firefighting methodology and equipment but in language and terminology it gets a little bit trickier”.
Mr McKern said that the big difference was the actual fire behaviour, with the different vegetation types producing a different type of fire than in Victoria.
“In the US the fires are exceptionally intense and burn for longer, things like the pine trees and needles on the ground mean the fire holds its heat longer,” he said.
“Temperatures in the low 40s and very low humidity were also factors.
“These fires were in very mountainous areas and the steep terrain meant there was not much scope for vehicle access, leading to a greater use of aircraft.”
While Mr McKern has returned, the fires he left behind are still raging more than two months after starting.
“It is all about containment now given the scope and terrain involved, and they will keep burning until the snows arrive in the next month or so,” he said.
He has returned to his day-job as a fire behaviour analyst working from CFA headquarters.
“Some of the best learnings I got come from the relationships I formed with people doing similar roles in such a different environment,” he said, reflecting on his time in the US.
Mr McKern’s first involvement with the CFA came when he joined the Lilydale brigade some 20 years ago, and he has a close association with the Healesville brigade, having been a member for 10 years.
He lives in Healesville with wife Nicole and children Tasman and Caitlyn.