Despite their many geographical and cultural differences, Australian and Canadian firefighters share a common bond that can only be truly understood after spending weeks on end battling treacherous blazes in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable.
It's that bond forged in the flames that brought 14 Australian firefighters to Whistler this past weekend for some rare downtime in between operational tours thanks to local helicopter pilot and firefighter Stu Wild.
"I used to go down to Australia in the wintertime to (fight fires) in New South Wales and Victoria," said Wild. "Through camaraderie and a bunch of friends, I heard that the guys were in town and I basically organized to take them out on the lake and show them around."
The visiting group was among the 104 firefighters sent from Down Under last month to assist Canadian crews during B.C.'s peak fire season. And with the more than 1,300 blazes that have broken out across the province this summer, firefighters have been plenty busy, working weeks at a time in nearly unbearable heat without a day off.
It makes what little free time they do get — two days off for every 14 on — absolutely essential for recharging their batteries before heading back out to the fire line.
"It's primarily about managing fatigue. That's what's very important — the utmost," said incident commander Alistair Drayton, who along with his Aussie contingent has been posted to the Boulder complex wildfire near Pemberton as well as the Cougar Creek blaze outside of Hope.
With so little time in between tours, you'd think Drayton's team would want to keep things fairly low key on off days, but the firefighters have been plenty busy taking in all that Whistler has to offer.
"We've done everything: we've done the zipline, we went up the gondola, we went horseback riding," Drayton said. "I had one comment at breakfast this morning from someone saying we need to go back to work to rest because we've been so busy here."
Because the countries lie in opposing hemispheres, firefighters from Canada and Australia can easily help each other out during periods of extreme need. The partnership between the Commonwealth nations has been ongoing for several years, and Drayton said the program has been designed so that personnel and resources can be shared effectively.
"The beauty of the two countries now is that we run the same management framework, which allows us to come into Canada and help, and vice versa," he said.
But the firefighters separated by half the globe share more than just management tools, explained Wild.
"As you can imagine, we all work very high-level, stressful jobs, so when different agencies come together, especially from different nations... you see that everyone's pretty much cut from the same cloth," he said.
That reciprocal relationship hasn't gone unnoticed by the Canadian public either, with an outpouring of support coming from all corners of the country for the Aussies who continue to put their lives on the line.
"(The support has) been overwhelming. It's been actually incredible," Drayton said. "I want to thank the people of Whistler. I know there are a lot of Australians already here, but the mixture of being Australian and a firefighter is something else. It's put us on a whole new level and the respect is tremendous, it really is. We appreciate it. It makes it easy to come here."
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