Last summer, US Forest Service Fuels Technician Mike Crook joined the Dunns Road fire fight as part of a crew of American fire fighters and experts sent to help with the ‘unprecedented’ Black Summer fires. The 30-day deployment was Mr Crook’s first time assisting with fires in Australia, despite working in fire fighting for 27 years, and he said he’s never seen conditions like what the Snowy Valleys experienced in 2019/20. Mr Crook’s wife Patty, also a Fire Behaviour Analyst, has already been on several deployments this year to assist with the wildfires burning along America’s west coast.
“It’s kind of a coincidence, but this summer she was doing essentially the same thing as I was doing in Australia, so she was doing fire behaviour work and it was better for me to stay home and do my regular job and take care of the kids and animals and normal family life,” said Mr Crook.
Typically, the couple take turns on assignments to different fires around the United States or the world. Mr Crook said there’s still “a good chance” he might get deployed to the fires on the west coast if they continue into the latter part of the year.
“Most of California and parts of southern Oregon will typically have a later fire season,” he explained. “It’s caused by winds that come down from the Cascades (mountain range) towards the ocean. Those winds get really strong in October so any ‘fire starts’ they might have can get pretty big.”
Mr Crook said the Californian fire season may extend as far as December; that means the Crook family may not have a real break from fire fighting for more than 12 months.
“This year is definitely a bit unusual because there’s two prongs to this,” he said. “This year I obviously did the [American] wintertime Australia, I was deployed over there for a total of 36 days, and that was till the end of January.
“I got back to the States and we went into the whole Covid shutdown thing and all the surrounding stuff with that. That made our lives pretty strange right there and then fire season starts for us in May, so we were really busy here… so that part of life has been very busy.”
Like everyone who talks about the Dunns Road fire, Mr Crook uses words like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘extreme’, but he adds an international comparison when he remembers the Black Summer fires.
“The fires that occurred in Australia this last season, and in particular the Dunns Road fire, were under a longer term drought and vegetation stress [than the current fires in the United States] and most of the fires all along New South Wales, they just went on and on.
“There were extreme days and those were much more frequent than I’ve seen or what I’d compare to what’s going on the west coast right now.”
He said the fires in Washington State or California are generally driven by one or two big wind events, but the fires in Australia were more prolonged and subject to multiple wind events, drought and record heat.
“The occurrence of the wind events that were happening all along the NSW coast line there was pretty phenomenal,” he said. “It’s just not something I’ve seen in the U.S. in my career. I’ve seen many fires blow up and do these big major runs, just like what you guys experienced, but not to that magnitude or duration.”
While he was in Australia, Mr Crook worked alongside the NSW RFS’s Fire Behaviour Analyst Kevin Cooper. Both men have decades of experience in fire fighting and analysis and both agreed that last summer was the worst they’ve ever seen.
“This is what I know: For Australia, this was unprecedented. It was not normal at all,” said Mr Crook. “While Australia does ecologically have large fires anyway – your ecosystem is sort of designed around fires and needs fires – but the extreme events that occurred in 2019 into 2020, even for Australia that was unprecedented.”
Describing these types of conditions as possibly a ‘new normal’, Mr Crook said he’s seeing extreme events more frequently and he believes it’s directly related to climate change.
“The wind events that occurred on the west coast just in the last month, while they were a much shorter duration than what we saw in Australia, they were still events that we just don’t see,” he said. “We don’t have those kinds of recorded events. Especially on the western side of the Cascade Range. Most of that area is heavily influenced by the ocean and doesn’t get as dry as that and doesn’t have that strong of winds.”
One of the major differences between fire fighting in Australia and the United States is that the U.S. uses a paid firefighting force, whose primary job for six months out of the year is to travel and fight fires full time. Mr Crooks said he was extremely impressed with the volunteer force in Australia, but was concerned about the sustainability of using volunteers if these events continue to become more common.
“That was something very unusual for me,” he said after witnessing the volunteers working for the NSW Rural Fire Service.
“It was something that the U.S. personnel that were over there all kind of agreed that while the volunteer program in Australia is extensive, if we’re going to continue having these ‘new normal’ and more what we would consider extreme events happen more frequently, we all agreed it just doesn’t seem sustainable to have an all volunteer force.
“But we were only there for 30 days, so that’s our knowledge. We haven’t seen that background for the 50, 60 years that these programs have been going on.”
Despite his concerns about the sustainability of using volunteers, Mr Crook said he had no qualms about the abilities and dedication of the volunteers.
“These people were really experienced,” he said. “Even though they’re farmers or ranchers or loggers, they have daytime jobs or regular jobs most of the time, I think they train pretty extensively, because their knowledge on fires and fire fighting was pretty outstanding.”
He said the Australian volunteers could go head to head with professional American fire fighters.
“I definitely think that while professional fire fighters here might have more fire experience, the training and the level of volunteerism and the amount of experience variability with the volunteer system in Australia was definitely very comparable to our full time professional fire fighters here.”
The experience of working in Australia is one that Mr Crook would like to repeat “absolutely.”
“I wouldn’t even hesitate,” he said.
After working on fires in Portugal and in Africa, Mr Crook said the Australian fires and approach to fire fighting were the most comparable to the United States and gave him some tools to bring back home, especially when it comes to considering safety.
“[I really noticed] some of their tactics and strategies for maintaining their own safety, which were impressive, especially that in Australia, they are more willing to do an indirect strategy where they’ll back away from the fires and do a burnout operation if they have to,” he said.
“To some extent when you look at the U.S. model, our fire fighters are much more willing to go direct on fires that are more risky. I think the Australian fire fighting program values their safety in that situation probably more than what we would do. We would put ourselves more at risk, which is not necessarily the best thing.”
Mr Crook said American fire fighters carry fire shelters with them – essentially a foil and silica blanket which the fire fighter deploys and hides underneath while the fire passes. Mr Crook said that carrying a shelter can give a fire fighter a sense of invincibility, and can lead them to being more willing to put themselves in harms’ way.
“The other thing that was a learning experience was the cohesiveness of the RFS and the volunteer program with the incident management team and how well they worked in the communities they were in,” he said.
“In both cases with the towns I was in, the people that lived there were really accommodating. Though the season was long and catastrophic, they didn’t have the feeling they were ‘put out’. That cohesiveness, I could bring that back here.”
Mr Crook remembered a time when he was driving towards the Dunns Road fire, lost in his thoughts, and found himself on the wrong side of the road.
“Of what I would say was the right side and the rest of the country was on the wrong side,” he laughed.
“It was a lonely stretch of road and all of a sudden, I had a vehicle behind me just honking and honking I realised I was on the wrong side and I pulled over and they called out, ‘Hey mate, you can’t drive on the right side of the road, you’re going to get yourself killed!’
“They didn’t get mad or anything, they were just genuinely concerned about my wellbeing. I think they were 1) amused and 2) genuinely concerned for me.
“I think if that had happened here in the U.S. you might have gotten a different kind of response.”
Mr Crook also said the Royal Commission and State Inquiry proceedings are something he’s not used to. In the United States, as long as fire fighters are operating within their rules and mandates, they’re not subject to much scrutiny. If a fire fighter goes outside the manual, they may face a court case, but otherwise the government leaves the fire fighters to do their work.
During the Dunns Road fire, he said all staff were instructed to “keep pretty meticulous note taking and record keeping because they knew this was going to come up and they would have to deal with a defense of their strategies”.
“Don’t pick apart something that’s already working. Not to say it’s not important to review and make changes and make things better, but it can get political.
“That would be my concern, that some of this over the winter would start getting political and finger-pointing as opposed to looking at what really happened and what could be done better.”