Happy to serve: firefighter returns from Australia

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

Yes, Jason Pankratow saw kangaroos. Also a wombat and several koalas.

And one of those deadly poisonous snakes you always hear Australia is full of.

“It was an eastern brown snake,” says Pankratow, who spent 38 days in the country helping to fight wildfires. “They say you can use anti-venom once. If it bites you twice, you’re dead.”

Needless to say, he didn’t get bitten.

Pankratow, who works out of the Slave Lake Fire Centre, is one of 34 fire protection personnel from Alberta to help out Down Under in the past couple of months. They joined 138 others from across the country – mostly (maybe all) involved in incident management roles.

“That’s what was requested,” explains Wildfire Information Officer Leah Lovequist. She says there were 21 people in the group that arrived on Dec. 5.

Pankratow worked in managing the air attack side of things. He’s quick to emphasize that “the real heroes” were the people out on the fire line. “I was in an office,” he says.

Jason arrived in Sydney on Dec. 5, having lost a day in the process of flying there. It was smoky in the New South Wales capital – first noticed as a bit of unnatural haze inside the terminal building. Outside was worse.

“It’s not like our smoke,” he says. “It’s really dry.”

The first order of business was a visit to the Canadian consulate for a briefing on the situation. One thing they were told was “it was nothing like they had ever seen before. Fire everywhere. Extreme drought. No significant rainfall for 18 months.”

The next day Jason was flown north to a town called Casino – what would have been an eight-hour drive on the ground. It’s Australian cattle country, he says, with grass and “scraggly trees,” with forest around the fringes. It had six fires, covering about 400,000 hectares.

The work in organizing the air attack was pretty similar to what he’s used to back home. There were some differences in terminology that took some getting used to – and there wasn’t a lot of water being dropped.

“It was mostly retardant,” he says, and thanks to a shortage, not even enough of that.

Being ranch country, and not thickly populated, the area around Casino was not high on the priority list.

“We did what we could,” Jason says.

He was 23 days altogether in Casino. The schedule was five days on, one day off, five on and then two off. On his days off he did a bit of exploring, visiting the Gold Coast, a wildlife refuge and a park or two. One of the koalas he saw was in the wild.

The weather eased off a bit toward the end. But for a long time it had been pretty dire, with what’s called ‘catastrophic’ conditions in the Australian fire lingo being reached several times. Pankratow explains this is the Australian equivalent of ‘crossover conditions’ back home. Here, it means when the rising temperature and falling humidity cross each other (or the lines depicting them on graphs do). When that happens, it’s known that any spark can turn into something pretty bad. In New South Wales the ‘catastrophic’ status kicks in when the temperature is 40C (or more), combined with humidity at nine per cent or less and winds of 30 kilometres or more. When those conditions arise, a fire that may just have been smouldering, is bound to pick up and take off. And that’s what was happening, again and again. Jason says the hottest day he saw was 45 degrees. He describes it as “being two steps too close to a campfire, except you can’t get away.”

On Dec. 28, Pankratow flew back to Sydney and then rented a car and drove north to a town called Maitland. There he was doing the same job, only this time in wine country. Vineyard owners were keen to keep the fires out of their grape fields; this may or may not have been the reason more retardant was available. In that region were four or five fires, and again something in the range of 400,000 – 500,000 hectares burned.

Jason was at that post until Jan. 7, by which time there had been a bit of rain and they were “starting to get a handle on things.”

Asked about what it was like working with Australians, Pankratow calls it, “a fantastic experience.

“Great people,” he says. “Well trained. They know their business.”

One thing that impressed him greatly was how upbeat the Aussies firefighting personnel were, in spite of how bad it was. It was “really gratifying,” he says, to be able to step in to the job so that some of them could get a day or two off now and then to spend with their families. If not for the international relief, “they wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

It was also good to be able to return the favour for Australian help the past three years in B.C., Alberta and elsewhere.

Other Slave Lakers doing stints in Australia are Russ Murphy, Stephen Willis and Kevin Parkinson. Jason Cottingham of High Prairie is also over there.

Jason Pankratow at the fire station in Casino, New South Wales.

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