Australia is turning from fire defense to offense
BODALLA, Australia — Crews battling Australia’s wildfires said Sunday that they have been able to turn from defense to offense for the first time in weeks thanks to a break in the weather.
Dale McLean, who is helping manage the response to a fire near the town of Bodalla in New South Wales state, was part of team that was bulldozing down small trees and burning scrub ahead of the fire’s projected path to try to stop it from reaching a major highway by starving it of fuel.
“This fire took a major run about seven or eight days ago, and with the weather changing now, the weather settling down, the fire has settled down,” he said. “The fire behavior has changed. So we’re able to get in front of the fire now, get on the offensive.”
Other workers echoed McLean’s comments, saying cooler temperatures and mild winds have finally offered them a chance to make progress. The weather is expected to remain benign for the next week, although any deterioration in conditions after that could see the wildfires flare up again.
While battling the blazes, volunteer firefighting veteran Mick Stain found some moth larvae, or “witchetty grubs,” and turned them into what’s known in Australia as bush tucker by roasting them directly on the fire’s burning coals.
“Bit creamy and nutty, but they’re all right,” Stain said. “They’re not spew-worthy, so they’re pretty good.”
Meanwhile, U.S. tennis star Serena Williams donated her $43,000 winner’s check from New Zealand’s ASB Classic to the fundraising appeal for victims of the wildfires, joining many other tennis stars to pledge money, including Ash Barty, Nick Kygrios, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova.
Also on Sunday, news came that another firefighter had been killed. Bill Slade — one of the few professionals among mainly volunteer brigades battling blazes across southeast Australia — died after being hit by a falling tree on Saturday near Omeo in eastern Victoria state, Forest Fire Management Victoria Executive Director Chris Hardman said.
The 60-year-old married father of two was commended in November for 40 years of service with the forestry agency.
“Although we do have enormous experience in identifying hazardous trees, sometimes these tree failures can’t be predicted,” Hardman said. “Working on the fire ground in a forest environment is a dynamic, high-risk environment and it carries with it significant risk.”
The tragedy brings the death toll to at least 27 in a crisis that has destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched an area larger than the U.S. state of Indiana since September. Four of the casualties have been firefighters.
The crisis has brought accusations that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government needs to take more action to counter climate change, which experts say has worsened the blazes. Thousands of protesters rallied Friday in Sydney and Melbourne, calling for Morrison to be fired and for Australia to take tougher action on global warming.
Firefighter Mick Stain eats a moth larvae called a witchetty grub Sunday as he helps patrol a controlled fire as they work at building a containment line at a wildfire near Bodalla, Australia.