By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG — In his 38 years as a conservation officer, Gerry Rosset has never seen anything like the wildfires he helped battle during his five-week stint in Australia.
Rosset and Andrew Prokopchuk, two Manitoba staff who were among the first wave of Canadians to travel Down Under in early December, returned home Thursday.
“Very volatile conditions, especially the drought conditions they’ve had,” Rosset said.
Prokopchuk, who was greeted at the Winnipeg airport with a hug from his wife, said the fires are immense and fast-moving.
“The one fire that we were on was over 400,000 hectares. It was over a thousand-kilometre perimeter around the fire itself,” he said.
“It just kept on growing substantially every day. Every day there was a hard wind, it just grew that much more.”
The two men worked in fire control centres in southeast Australia, helping to co-ordinate and deploy crews and resources. Even though they were at a distance from the blazes, Prokopchuk recalled the sky being very dark during the day.
Rosset and Prokopchuk are among nearly 100 Canadian fire experts who have been sent to Australia since early December. The federal government has offered further aid as the unprecedented fire crisis shows no sign of letting up.
The fires have claimed at least 26 lives since September and have destroyed more than 2,000 homes. The southeast region is tinder dry and temperatures there were expected to top 40 C on Friday.
Prokopchuk said Australians were very happy to see assistance from other countries.
“The public — any place we’d go — people wanted to hug us. There was tears,” he said.
“We spoke to a lot of people that have lost farms, buildings, houses, cottages. It really affects people hard.”
Both men are used to travelling to other jurisdictions to help out, although usually it’s within North America. Rosset said they’re glad to be home from Australia, but would likely return if asked.
For now, the men have more immediate plans.
Rosset said he has some shovelling to do at home after several centimetres of snow hit southern Manitoba this week.
Prokopchuk said he plans to rest, at least a little.
“Sleeping for a couple of days to get over the jet lag, I guess … Monday, we’ll be back to our regular duties as conservation officers.”