Hotshots head to deadly fires in Australia

A portion of the 20 firefighters from the Angeles National Forest "Hotshots"stand in front of the Little Tujunga Hotshots facility just before deploying to Melbourne, Australia to assist with New South Wales brush fires, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Gilbert Bernal/The Signal
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When a wildland fire ravages Santa Clarita, they get called to the front lines. And now the Bear Divide-based group is fighting fires 7,000 miles away.

For two federal firefighters, known simply as Hotshots working out of the Bear Divide station a few miles outside city limits, they heeded the call to fly over the Pacific and help their brothers in arms battle a blaze that’s ravaging the outback.

Both Gabriel Romero and his colleague Josh, who declined to give his last name, volunteered to venture out from their normal posting at Bear Divide, located on the 21000 block of Sand Canyon, and go to battle in Australia.

A few years earlier, Australia had sent a few hundred of their own firefighters to Southern California to help local firefighters battle our own backyard blazes, Romero said. “They were over here to help us in our time of need, and I’m just trying to return that favor, because they came down and helped us.”

“We don’t know what we’re hitting,” said Josh. “All we have is what we’ve already learned, and what we know how to do currently.”

The two local Hotshots left LAX this past month with a crew of 20 of their fellow Hotshot colleagues, flying directly into Australia with their gear in tow. For the next 35 days, they will be battling some of the fiercest flames and terrain that side of the world has seen.

The Mission

“Most everybody knows what’s going on in Australia,” said Bear Divide’s Superintendent Brian Anderson. “We’ve had international agreements in place for some years now … and the Australians ran the proper route to the states through the ordering channels.”

“We’re filling a need that they put a request in for,” Anderson.

Anderson oversees a crew of Hotshots, a branch of firefighters that fall under the authority of the U.S. Forest Service. The Bear Divide Hotshots, Anderson’s station, are a crew that work off of Sand Canyon, working to battle wildland fires around the Santa Clarita, as well as throughout the world.

The Australian fires, according to a news release distributed Thursday from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, have killed 26 people, the total burned region has increased to approximately 10 million hectares — an area of land approximately the size of Indiana.

As of this past week, there were a few hundred fires burning, with every state within Australia currently being affected, according to an ECHO news release.

“It’ll be the same job, just a different location,” said Anderson, in regards to his two crew members heading overseas. “They’ll be involved in cutting fire line, putting in hose lays, doing mop up, extinguishing hotspots, any sort of structure protection/triage, any sort of wildlife protection that’s needed over there. Whatever the Australian firefighters their organizational structures need of them.“

When asked what he believed was going through the heads, as they prepared for what is close to a long flight away from home and familiar territory, Anderson said of his men that it’s business as usual.

“The same things that go through their heads when they’re preparing for fires in (the United States) … ‘What’s the weather going to be like? What’s the fuel type? What’s the fire behavior going to be like? What are the conditions going to be like? What’s the public perception of what’s going on?’” said Anderson. “All the same things that go through their heads here.”

Of what the other men and women are thinking, with Bear Divide colleagues going to Australia, away from the protection they usually feel when they have each other’s backs in Southern California, Anderson said the other Hotshots were proud of their two friends and fellow crew members.

“The wildland firefighting community in the United States is probably the most elite in the world, and it’s awesome that they get to be able to provide that service internationally,” said Anderson. “They’re very well equipped, trained and capable of taking care of themselves and the folks that they’ll be working with.”

Gabriel Romero, with US National Forestry Service apart of the Bear Divide Hotshots that over look the Santa Clarita Valley stands in front of the Little Tujunga Hotshots facility just before deploying to Melbourne, Australia to assist with New South Wales brush fires, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. Gilbert Bernal/The Signal

The crew

Of the 20 or so Hotshots at Bear Divide, Romero and Josh plan to use their training in order to battle the multiple blazes in Australia.

“It’s going to be new terrain for us,” said Romero. “The fire behavior is going to be different over there … it’s going to be a new experience for most of us to go to a different country to fight those fires.”

For both firefighters, they have traveled to multiple states to fight fires. But the Australia trip would not only be their first to the country, but their first international mission personally.

“Geographically, everything is going to be completely different,” said Josh. “All different fuels than what we’re accustomed to. And then again, the seasonal change is probably going to be one of the bigger ones,” he added, noting that California is currently in it’s winter, but Australia is in the midst of their summer fire season.

Over the course of their mission, the men and women of the international Hotshot crew, will spend over 30 days in country doing whatever is required of them, they said.

However, they both said they’re ready for whatever the elements throw at them.

“We’ll be ready for just anything that comes along with the fire, fire suppression and assignments that could change,” said Romero.

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