Meet the Newfoundlander spending the holidays fighting wildfires in Australia

Submitted by N.L. government

Newfoundlander and fire training specialist Joe Russell spent his Christmas holidays in Australia, assisting firefighting efforts as wildfires ravage the country. 

Russell was sent away from his role with the Department of Fisheries and Land Resources on Dec. 18 for 38 days by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. They are a national and international resource sharing agency for forest fires. 

He was sent to Australia with 29 other Canadians. 

"I had put my name forward, if the opportunity came up for my particular role of logistics. And so, next thing you know, I was on a plane," Russell told CBC Radio's On The Go.

Australia has experienced high temperatures and strong winds, resulting in large wildfires breaking out across the country for over two months. 

It was pretty impressive, and a little overwhelming at first. - Joe Russell

Acting as a logistics chief, Russell has been responsible for helping feed and lodge up to 400 firefighters at a time, as well as tracking and delivering equipment.

Currently working in Lithgow, a town in New South Wales, Russell is 140 kilometres from the City of Sydney and very far from home. Luckily, he says he didn't spend the holidays alone.

"We had an opportunity to have a special dinner made for us by their local caterer that was catering for the incident. So it worked out OK. We had a pretty good meal," he said.

Massive fire more than 500,000 hectares in size

AAP Image/Jeremy Piper/Reuters

Russell said that the fire in his area is huge, and that the weather may not be helping to resolve the problem anytime soon.

"The fire right now is more than 500,000 hectares in size, and is still considered out of control, and with a total fire front of more than 1,500 kilometres. So it's the sheer size of a fire that they're dealing with here," Russell said.

Russell said he doesn't have hope that conditions will soon improve.

"The weather forecast has eased a little bit in the last few days this week, but is predicted to warm up again in the next few days into the high 30s and even 40s in some areas," he said.

"They're expecting higher temperatures and that's going to increase fire danger down the road. We're just assisting where we can," he said. 

"When you see some of the devastation of where the fires burned, you can only imagine how hard it was for the local residents here."

Russell said he could see the bush fires from above while his flight landed.

"We actually could see from the air, the plume of smoke. It was pretty impressive, and a little overwhelming at first."

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