Jillian Dirou and Ross McKinney said the wildfires that are ravaging Australia, their home country, were not only expected but serve as a warning to other parts of the world as well.
“It’s unprecedented, never before experienced, but not unexpected,” said McKinney. “Scientists and experienced people like myself have been telling the politicians for years that this will happen.”
|Ross McKinney and Jillian Dirou are house-sitting in Metchosin, B.C.. They are constantly monitoring the wildfires in New South Wales, Australia, which are 500 metres from their home. (Shalu Mehta/News Staff)
The couple has made a village called Eucumbene Cove in New South Wales, bordering a national park, their home for nearly 30 years. Right now, the wildfires are burning about 500 metres from their house and the one closest to their home is 120,000 acres large.
Dirou and McKinney left Australia in November to house-sit for a friend in Metchosin but have remained in constant contact with friends and family back home and have been monitoring the situation from afar.
They said their attitude about being in Canada during the wildfires in mixed. Dirou has severe asthma and would have been “another casualty” if they stayed.
Before they left for Canada, they prepared everything they could for the fire. Brushes and shrubs around their home were cleared, no trees are hanging over the house, the gutters are full of water, sprinkler hoses are in the front and back yards and a friend is watching their home.
“If he gets the order to evacuate, he will turn on the tap and leave,” McKinney said.
The fires in their state alone – not including Queensland or Victoria – are double the size of Vancouver Island. The fires in Australia have killed at least 26 people and have destroyed more than 2,000 homes and a significant amount of wildlife, including 30 per cent of the koala population.
On Saturday, the couple said aerial support was present, keeping watch on the main fire and prepared to drop water bombs. Bulldozers and graders are also being used to widen containment lines.
When the couple left their home the fires weren’t in their area yet.
“When we left, I knew the fires were on the north coast and I thought ‘surely not, but if…’ and I just took a really long look,” Dirou said. “We thought it was all over last Saturday but there was a bit of a wind change, the temperature dropped, a light rain … and the whole situation changed.”
The fires sparked again a few days later and their friend could see the flames clearly from their front deck.
McKinney, who was born in Edmonton, has 25 years of experience working with the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales, Australia. He had the highest field position in his state and worked in fire control. He also consults with bush fire management planning and was the assistant director with the Federal Department of Environment. Since retiring, McKinney has become very vocal about his concerns for the environment and the threat of bush fires.
He has written several letters to politicians, ministers and local news outlets about his concerns, asking what government officials will do to mitigate disasters such as these. His letters, however, have gone unanswered.
McKinney said the National Parks and Wildlife Service budget was reduced by $120 million and that over 200 firefighters were made redundant by that action. He said those firefighters were the ones who helped out Canada since the two countries’ fire seasons are opposite each other. However, the seasons have begun to cross over with fires in Australia starting in September this year. He said the window of opportunity to perform controlled burns has also shrunk.
“This is a warning,” McKinney said. “It’s a warning for any country to look at Australia and say ‘wow, could this happen here?’”
Dirou said they faced massive fires in 2003 as well. They fought them for five weeks and managed to save their home.
“I was traumatized,” Dirou said. “It was the first time I had experienced fires like that.”
But the ones occurring now bring on a new level of anxiety for the couple and many others, they said.
“People are battle-weary,” Dirou said. “They’re surrounded by smoke. It’s a constant, relentless threat. We feel helpless and hopeless.”
The country is just entering mid-summer now, with no clear end to the fire season in sight. McKinney said a decade of change in climate – with less than average rainfall and rivers drying out – has led scientists and firefighters like himself to call for more resources, but not enough action has been taken yet.
“It’s been a catastrophe waiting to happen, and it’s happened,” McKinney said.
Dirou and McKinney’s home remains safe at the moment and they’ve expressed their gratitude to the firefighters who’ve come from around the world, including Canada, to help. However, they know conditions can change quickly and are prepared for the worst. They said the main focus now in Australia is to ensure people are safe.
“We are wholly and solely trying to save lives right now,” McKinney said. “Properties and the environment have gone by the wayside.”
-With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press