BOISE, Idaho — Australian and New Zealand firefighters arrived in the United States and collected gear on Monday with plans to fan out to help fight wildfires burning in several western states.
"It's a great opportunity to learn and share ideas and help the American community," said Chris Arnol, the group's international liaison. "We understand how tough it is for you guys and we're happy to help."
Simon Martin, 40, of Collie, Australia, was among the 71 firefighters picking up equipment at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, where an air quality alert is in effect due to smoke from regional wildfires.
"I'm sure there are a lot of fatigued firefighters out there," he said.
The firefighters are intended to fill a shortage of mid-level fire managers and include equipment bosses, strike team leaders and division supervisors who will bolster some 32,000 firefighters already in the field fighting more than 70 large fires.
Steve Gage, assistant director for operations at the fire center with the U.S. Forest Service, said there are open orders for a thousand mid-level managers.
"This gives us an opportunity to plug some of those critical holes we have in our incident management organizations," he said.
The U.S. is in the midst of one of its worst fire seasons on record with some 11,600 square miles scorched so far, the sixth worst going back to 1960 with more fire season left. Thirteen firefighters have died.
Arnol said the international contingent is up for the challenge.
"These guys are forest fire fighters," he said. "They've been requested specifically for this type of terrain and this type of vegetation, and that's what their skill sets are aligned to."
The nations have been firefighting partners for more than 50 years, and are able to lend out firefighters because the severest part of fire seasons occur at opposite times of the year. The last time the U.S. asked for help from the two countries was 2008, with 50 firefighters arriving. The U.S. sent firefighters abroad in 2007, including Mike Ferris, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.
"It's very interchangeable," he said. "They meet the same qualifications that we put our folks through here."
Officials said it wasn't clear on which fires the firefighters would be assigned. Fifteen of the firefighters are from New Zealand and the rest from Australia.
Merydth Whithead, 36, of Ballarat, Australia, said she was looking forward to fighting fires in the Pacific Northwest and that her 16 years of experience fighting fires in Australia would help her adapt.
"I hope that I'm able to help," she said. "I expect the fire behavior will be the same."
Warren Heslip, 47, of Southland, New Zealand, said he's used to fighting fires in the mountains.
"We're used to tall timber and steep territory," he said.
The U.S. is paying for the international help, though officials said the exact cost wasn't immediately available.
Firefighting costs this year through Friday, the latest date available, have been just over $1 billion. The U.S. Department of the Interior has spent $228 million, and the U.S. Forest Service $828 million, officials at the fire center said.