Battling bushfires

Refuge fire captain answers the call

A man driving a fire tanker.

As part of his Australian firefighting orientation, Kyle Bonham learned how to drive one of the large fire tankers. Photo courtesy of Kyle Bonham/USFWS

By Susan Sawyer
March 10, 2020

As the plane descended into Brisbane, Australia, Kyle Bonham, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire engine captain, realized he had lost an entire day crossing the International Date Line. Bonham, who is stationed at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex in California, was on his way to a month-long deployment fighting the devastating bushfires ‘down under.’

A man in a yellow jacking and red helmet holding a tool.

Kyle Bonham recently returned from a 30-day detail fighting the devastating bushfires in Victoria, Australia. Photo courtesy of Kyle Bonham/USFWS

After landing, the pilot announced that a group of American firefighters were on board, arriving to provide much needed help to exhausted local volunteers who had been battling the widespread and destructive flames for months.

“We received a hero’s welcome – everyone clapped, cheered and thanked us, and we hadn’t even walked off the plane yet,” said Bonham. “That was the reaction we got everywhere we went; the people were so welcoming and appreciative of us being there.”

Bonham was the only Service employee from the California-Great Basin Region in this group of 20 hardy men and women from the U.S. Departments of Interior and Agriculture. They were welcome reinforcements and one of many international response teams traveling to Australia to help the country gain control of the devastating fires.

Although Bonham, a Tulelake, California native, had previously traveled to Europe, Mexico and Canada on personal vacations and fought wildfires in several U.S. states, the Australian fire duty was far from anything he had ever done.

burning brush.

A bushfire burns quickly in the extremely dry eucalyptus forest. Several years of extreme drought and summer heat created conditions resulting in one of the worst fire seasons on record in Australia. Photo courtesy of Kyle Bonham/USFWS

“I didn’t even know what wildland firefighting was until my senior year in high school,” said Bonham. “My college prep teacher said it would be a great way to make money during the summer to help with college expenses.”

In college, Bonham settled on accounting, but after working a few fire seasons, he received an apprenticeship as a wildland firefighter. He never looked back. Over the next 13 years Bonham worked on three national forests before being hired last July in his current job with the Service.

Therefore, it came as no surprise to Klamath Refuge fire management officer Jeb Koons that Bonham was one of the first to answer the request for federal fire personnel to travel to Australia.

“Kyle had the necessary skills, certifications and training needed to fill in as a task force leader in charge of multiple pieces of equipment,” said Koons, who is Bonham’s supervisor. “Plus he had a valid passport and was willing to depart during the holiday season.”

two men in a recently burned area surrounded by smoke.

Kyle Bonham carries a chainsaw into the eucalyptus forest to fall hazard trees to decrease the spread of the raging Australian bushfires. Photo courtesy of Kyle Bonham/USFWS

After arriving in Australia, Bonham spent the next few days learning the local terminology and firefighting tactics of the Country Fire Authority (CFA), a force of 35,000 volunteers who had been tirelessly battling the deadly fires. It took the Americans about a week to adjust to the time zone and summer climate while learning new safety procedures and equipment.

Engine crews consisted of three American firefighters and one CFA driver. They practiced drills with the engines, called tankers, before heading to the fires in Victoria where they met their volunteer tanker drivers.

“The drivers were all highly respected members of the CFA,” said Bonham. “Every volunteer firefighter we met had such a sense of pride and dedication for the work they’re willing to do. My drivers were a sheriff and a college scientist from Melbourne.”

One of the highlights for Bonham was learning to drive the large engines in case of emergency.

“I volunteered to be one of the first to learn, which took some getting used to since the steering and controls were reversed and the roads were opposite from what I was accustomed to,” he said. “When we told the CFA drivers we weren’t on the right side of the road, their response was ‘no, we are on the correct side of the road.’”

a man cutting a fallen tree with a chainsaw.

Kyle Bonham chainsaws hazard trees in the midst of bushfires in Victoria, Australia. Photo courtesy of Kyle Bonham/USFWS

Since rain had helped douse some fires, Bonham was on mop-up duty, clearing debris and opening roads in communities recovering from the fires. His schedule was five days on and one day off, and as they completed tasks in one area, they were mobilized to other more active fire zones.

Based in Lakes Entrance, Bonham was tasked with creating new fire breaks by falling hazard trees, cutting brush and burning lines ahead of the 1.5 million acre fire, roughly 2400 square miles. This was only one of many fires burning out of control. Compared to wildfires in America, bushfires are much more aggressive and intense, fueled by extremely dry trees, shrubs and grasses due to a severe three-year drought.

“In the U.S. we can have large wildfires, half a million acres or more, posing a greater risk to human life and property since they live much closer to natural areas,” said Bonham. “The fires in Australia are that size and larger but their population is far less.”

burning brush and trees at night.

The Australian bushfires often created their own weather, burning so intense that the skies were cast with an orange glow day and night. Photo courtesy of Country Fire Authority

The priority for Bonham’s crew was ‘point protection,’ keeping the flames from reaching the expansive countryside farms, rangelands and ranchlands vital to the economy of the region.

a man tagging a cow's ear..

Kyle Bonham adjusted quickly after returning home to Tulelake, California. Pictured here, he and his grandfather work the family’s cows. Photo courtesy of Kyle Bonham/USFWS

On his day off, Bonham had the chance to explore the area. Normally February is the summer busy season with ten 10 times more visitors; the small towns rely on this visitation to support them through the rest of the year. However, many communities suffered severe financial impact as a result of the fires. The visiting fire crews did their part to boost local economies by eating out, renting bikes for transportation, hiring tour guides to show them the sights and even getting haircuts.

The crew also visited a wildlife rescue center, where they learned of the heroic efforts by volunteers to collect and care for native species affected by the fires.

“It was devastating to see the impact of the fires to wildlife, mostly the kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and emus,” said Bonham. “They just weren’t able to get away; there was no place for them to escape the flames and intense heat.”

a man sitting next to a woman holding a wombat

Bonham’s fire crew was visited by a wildlife care center and introduced to a juvenile wombat rescued from the fire. Photo courtesy of Kyle Bonham/USFWS

As his detail came to an end, Bonham looked forward to coming home and telling the stories of his experiences while settling back into his normal routine at the refuge.

“I would definitely go back,” said Bonham, who acknowledged as a father-to-be, it might be a little while before he ventures away from home again. “Being in Australia was a great yet very humbling experience for me. But there are lots of federal fire folks who should have the chance like I did to learn, help and give back to those amazing people and their country.”





Story Photo

Susan Sawyer

About the writer...

Susan Sawyer is the Klamath Basin public affairs officer, covering the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Klamath Falls and Yreka Fish and Wildlife Offices. She was raised in the California desert gaining a deep appreciation of the outdoors on family vacations to the Pacific coast, Sierras and Redwood forests.

She has worked in Arizona, Nevada, Montana, Idaho and now Oregon, where she spends her free time landscaping for wildlife, continuing to learn from and about nature and spoiling her animals.

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