‘A little bit of crazy’: Manitoba firefighter helping to battle out-of-control wildfires in Australia

By | January 14, 2020

After spending his summer battling blazes in Canada’s North, a Portage la Prairie man is now spending much of his winter fighting fires Down Under.

Matt Wollman has been stationed for nine weeks in Australia, where out-of-control wildfires are threatening humans, animals and the natural habitat. He’s one of six firefighters from the province who have been deployed to Australia,

“You have to be really crazy not to be a bit scared, but I have a little bit of crazy in me,” Wollman, 22, said.

Wollman spoke Tuesday via Skype with Ismaila Alfa of CBC’s Up To Speed, outside his house near the little town of Moss Vale in Australia’s southern highlands.

“(The fires) do scare me,” Wollman said. “It’s just the immensity of these fires and the damage, the power you see coming of them, just the weird things that happen.”

Firefighter Matt Wollman, originally from a Hutterite colony in southern Manitoba, is helping provide wildfire relief in Australia. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

He said the scariest moment during his time in Australia came when a flame-damaged tree came crashing to the ground only tens of metres away from him.

“Just this massive sound. My heart just jolted.”

Wollman said his original plans to go backpacking were put on hold in late November when he scored a seasonal job with Australia’s Forestry Corporation, which manages two million hectares of state forests.

Less than 10 days later, he started training for the role and familiarizing himself around the area in New South Wales where he would be working to protect pine plantations that provide a high-value timber industry.

Nearly two weeks ago, as the burning intensified, his crew’s safety was in danger of spot fires ablaze several kilometres away. Wollman said those were offshoots caused by existing fires quickly moving in on them from all directions.

“We were kind of sandwiched in between,” he said.

The team kicked into top-gear patrol mode.

“Within 15 minutes, the forest was burning so actively that we couldn’t go in there. We had to pull out of there. We had people in there trying to fight the fire but they got pushed out because the flames got into the tops of the trees,” he said.

“It’s not safe, at all.”

The wildfires were creeping closer and closer to endangering the community of Wingello, southwest of where he was staying.

“We got into the mode of protecting as many houses there as we could.”

Wildfires are being regularly monitored and mapped out online by the Rural Fire Service for consistent updates.

All along the watch towers

Whenever fire danger is significant, people perched up high in watch towers located in New South Wales look out for signs of flames and smoke.

Wollman said he has spent quite a few days stationed in a tower among the treetops in the thick of it.

“If you’re right there, it could be very quick,” he said.

An online map from Australia’s Rural Fire Service shows the wildfires ravaging the west coast, as of 5 p.m. CT Tuesday. (Submitted by Rural Fire Service)

With the right type of fuel, wildfires can move hundreds of metres in a matter of minutes.

“You want it to be kind of just creeping along the ground slowly so you can keep up, but a lot of these fires get driven by the wind, and they get down into these steeper gullies and gorges,” he said.

As the flames sneak uphill, they burn a lot faster, he said. Wind further fuels the fire.

“You won’t be able to outrun those fires, so you have to be positioned safely when you’re attacking anything that could run at you.”

Struggling to survive

It’s been estimated more than a billion animals have been affected by the wildfires. The forest floor is covered with dead wildlife, Wollman said.

“It’s quite surreal, honestly,” he said.

He hasn’t seen mammals, birds and reptiles fleeing the fiery forest, but has seen the impact on wildlife firsthand.

“Unfortunately, yes, I have seen quite a few get burned over,” he said. “It’s really sad.”

This koala, rescued from wildfires in Australia, is one of countless animals injured or killed by the devastating wildfires that have swept across the southeastern part of the country. (Dana Mitchell/The Associated Press)

Wildfires in Australia have killed 27 people and burned more than 7.3 million hectares so far this season. The full extent of the damage is unknown as the situation continues to unfold in an area where summer has just started.

Abnormally high temperatures coupled with the heat of the wildfires makes for an extremely hot environment. Adding to the uncertainty, eucalyptus trees, for example, contain an oil that pops when it burns and are well-known for creating spot fires.

“They light up really fast, and the fire in them can be quite aggressive,” Wollman said. The oil will burn, and the live embers can get picked up by wind, carried to other areas, and reignite where they land.

From 100 metres away in the treetops, decked out in heavy fire-protective gear, including a helmet, mask and goggles, Wollman said he can feel the heat.

“You’re sweating, you’re hot,” he said. “It’s pretty unbearable.”

Crews make sure to keep cool, stay hydrated and watch out for each other’s safety. Thick plumes of smoke can block out the sun, making it appear dark as night during the day.

“It doesn’t just go up, straight up, it gets blown into your face,” Wollman said.

Proud family

His sister Candice Doherty lives near Portage la Prairie, where she works at a family-run greenhouse.

“We couldn’t be prouder of him,” she said.

Given the dangers, Doherty is still thrilled her brother has the courage to help people — no matter who or where they are in the world.

“I don’t think he’s crazy at all,” she said. “I think he has an incredible heart.”

Matt Wollman speaks via Skype with Up To Speed host Ismaila Alfa. Wollman is one of six firefighters from Manitoba who have been deployed to battle out-of-control blazes in Australia. 6:09