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American Firefighters Battle Australian Blazes


We're going to check on conditions in Australia now, where heavy rains in parts of eastern Australia have brought some relief from the wildfires. But dozens of blazes continue to burn throughout the country. Since September, fires have burned millions of acres in Australia, destroyed thousands of homes and claimed the lives of at least 28 people as well as untold numbers of wildlife.

This ongoing emergency has stressed Australia's firefighting resources, and that's one reason the government there has accepted outside help, including from the U.S. We're joined now by Joel Kerley. He is a firefighter who works with a helicopter pilot on a helicopter unit. He's a wildfire manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Boise, Idaho. He and a team of American firefighters have been in Australia for almost a month assisting in the efforts. And he is with us now from near the Australian capital, Canberra.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOEL KERLEY: Hi, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: Can you just give us a sense of why these fires are so hard to contain?

KERLEY: Yeah. I think one of the things that is different over here is you get to know the eucalyptus fuel model very quickly. It contains a lot of oil. And the bark of the Eucalyptus is sort of like a fan blade shape, and it's very, very light, and it retains heat for a long time. And so when that tree burns, the convection lifts it up, and it'll travel for kilometers and start new spot fires. And just the overall dryness of the fuels over here - it just doesn't take much for the fire to progress at such a rate that there's really nothing that we can do to attack it - to sort of try to steer it out of the way.

MARTIN: What's it been like working with your Australian colleagues? Is it - are they just exhausted? I mean, what are they telling you about what it's been like for them?

KERLEY: They have been going since early August, which is unprecedented for them. Almost all of these folks over here are volunteers, and so that means walking away from their jobs. But this year, they've had to do months on end. When I arrived, they were very, very fatigued and I think just needed some type of a shot in the arm because there was just no end in sight - no rain in the forecast, no relief.

MARTIN: One of the things that people here have really responded to have been the pictures of animals affected by the fires. Of course, it's the people, too - of course, the people. But the - many of the videos have shown these kind of beloved, iconic animals that everybody associates with Australia, you know, being burned or being badly injured. There's an estimate that puts the number of animals killed by the wildfires at something like a billion. I'm just wondering, is wildlife management part of the challenge that you're seeing there? And how are people there dealing with what they're seeing?

KERLEY: That's one of the things that's on everybody's mind and is just so widespread. And the intensity that they're burning out has really affected the populations and the species. And the wildlife officials here - from what I know, they're very engaged, and they're already coming up with things that they can do as far as rescue centers. And, of course, it's on a massive scale. But, to be honest with you, it's pretty depressing to think about it.

MARTIN: Yeah. That's Joel Kerley. He's a wildfire manager for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He's based in Idaho, but he's been in Australia for nearly a month helping to fight the wildfires there.

Mr. Kerley, thank you so much for your hard work, and thank you so much for talking to us today.

KERLEY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.