Utahn called to Australia to help fight ‘unprecedented’ wildfires

(Photo courtesy Linda Chappell) Linda Chappell, with the U.S. Forest Service, is photographed working to quell a fire burning in Australia.

Linda Chappell has been working with the U.S. Forest Service fighting wildfires in Utah for years, and she said she’s never seen anything like the fire she was called in to help quell in Australia. She says it’s not a stretch to say the spate of fires burning through Australia are larger than any fires anyone alive has seen.

“The scale of what’s going on is unprecedented in our lifetime. Whether it is historically or not, I don’t know,” Chappell said. “But in our lifetimes, certainly.”

Chappell, a planning section chief, is one of at least three other Utahns who were dispatched to Australia to help fight the wildfires that have torched much of New South Wales and have bled into Victoria and South Australia, killing more than twenty people and displacing thousands. Officials estimate millions of animals have also died. Chappell is in charge of coordinating fire equipment and personnel for the Gospers Mountain Fire in New South Wales based on weather forecasts and fire behavior. The blaze measures approximately 1,977 square miles.

The Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fire and Wildlife Service have also sent personnel.

(Photo courtesy Linda Chappell) Tankers are photographed being prepared to fight a wildfire in Australia.

While Chappell has dealt with numerous fires before, she said directing resources was especially tough for this blaze because of its scale and the number of other destructive and potentially deadly fires burning.

Recently, Chappell said rain fell and firefighters at the Gospers Mountain Fire have gotten some relief. She’s no longer surrounded by orange skies and thick smoke, and she’s scheduled to come back to the U.S. at the end of the week — but the work isn’t even close to done.

More fire personnel from the U.S. and elsewhere have been called in to help and are needed, if anything to give a break to those who have been working all fire season, which normally doesn’t end until March.

The whole experience, while occurring on a backdrop of tragedy, did illustrate to Chappell something hopeful: “It just points out that we’re all on the same planet together.”