Leadership Corner

Forest Service supports Australia firefighting efforts

January 10th, 2020 at 1:48PM
Portrait of Chief Christiansen in uniform.
Chief Vicki Christiansen

Happy New Year and welcome back! I hope you spent time with family and friends, had some fun and recuperated after our whirlwind 2019. This week was just our first full week back at work together in 2020, and we are already deeply involved in one of the most important efforts occurring on the planet—the devastating wildfires currently burning in Australia.

My deepest sympathies are with the people in Australia who have lost their lives and homes. These fires have been burning since September, and over 26 million acres of land are on fire—an area larger than Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined.

The people of Australia face devastation on an unprecedented scale. In addition to the immediate destruction caused by the fires, their severity means that almost everything in affected areas is gone, leaving nothing to stop debris from washing into freshwater when rains come. Eventually, this could cause problems for drinking water supplies for major cities.

The fires have also caused a crisis for wildlife. World Wildlife Fund–Australia estimates that 1.25 billion animals have died. The platypuses in the north and west of the eastern Australian range may go locally extinct. The Australian government reports the loss of livestock will exceed 100,000 animals.

In short, it is a difficult situation in Australia. I am so proud to know that we have answered the call for assistance from our partners in the Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council and have deployed our colleagues to help. Shawna Legarza, director of Fire and Aviation Management, has toured fire sites throughout the country. We also have several teams pitching in on the ground.

Based on requests from the Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council, the National Interagency Fire Center sent 159 interagency personnel, including 87 from the USDA Forest Service, to help combat the bushfires. U.S. firefighters are filling critical wildfire and aviation management roles in New South Wales and Victoria. The United States, Australia and New Zealand have been exchanging fire assistance for more than 15 years.

Our fellow employees assisting their counterparts to fight these fires truly embody each one of our values. Service—They are serving something bigger than themselves and even their own country. Interdependence—We can’t do this alone. Australia and New Zealand are always here when we need them, most recently in 2018, and now we’re proud to be there when they need us. Diversity—Firefighters from three countries are combining assets and expertise to tackle these massive wildfires. Conservation—The fates of millions of people, animals and acres of land depend on our international fire teams. Safety—I can rest assured, knowing our employees and partners are being safe. When I get updates and see our colleagues in action in Australia, I truly know that This is Who We Are.

Take pride knowing our fellow employees continue to contribute to this incredible effort. But know that we are not done. The United States fire community intends to send another 100 fire personnel overseas in the near future. These devastating fires are still active, and Australia has just entered its hottest season of the year. Please keep its people, and ours, in your thoughts.

Shawna Legarza and Gordy Sachs, with USDA Forest Service, speak with a representative at a dispatch center in Australia.
Shawna Legarza, director of Fire and Aviation Management, and Gordy Sachs, chief of the All Hazard & International Fire Support Branch, at a dispatch center at the State Control Centre in Victoria, Australia, Jan. 8. The SCC is Victoria’s primary control centre for management of emergencies.