NOEL KING, HOST:
Over 100 large fires are burning in the American West. About 2,500 square miles - that's an area bigger than Delaware - are now on fire. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, is in charge of the U.S. government's response, and resources are stretched to their limit by hot, dry and unstable conditions. Nearly 150 veteran firefighters from Australia and New Zealand have answered an American call for help. Peter McKechnie is coordinating their efforts from Boise. Mr. McKechnie, thanks for talking to us.
PETER MCKECHNIE: Good morning. And thank you very much for having us along.
KING: All right. So where are you from, exactly?
MCKECHNIE: So I'm from just north of Sydney. I work in Sydney, New South Wales, in Australia and live just to the north of there.
KING: You are a veteran firefighter. What inspired you to fly halfway around the world to fight fires in the United States?
MCKECHNIE: Oh, I think all firefighters - one of the main reasons they do what they do is the ability to help out communities. And, you know, when the call for help from the United States came to Australia and New Zealand, it didn't take us long at all to find people that were more than willing to come and help our colleagues in the States and be able to just make it a little bit of difference for their communities.
People who wanted to go were able to put up their hand, and a process was put in place to select the teams that were needed, and then those that would, you know, be able to come over here and most easily fit into the environment in which we're working.
KING: I am curious about that environment. The American West - obviously, a huge place, but some very specific environmental conditions that have allowed some of these fires to blaze so out of control. Is this different than fighting fires back in Australia?
MCKECHNIE: No. No. The principles of how we fight the fires are much the same. There's some differences in some of the language that we use to describe parts of fire and parts of the area that we work in, but ultimately, the way we fight the fires is much the same. And that's what makes it so easy for our firefighters to travel to the States and acclimatize and assimilate into your practices. And vice versa - when we've had some bad fire seasons, American firefighters have come to Australia and helped our teams out.
KING: You said that American and Australian firefighters use different terms for certain things, and sometimes that can be a little confusing. What is an example of that? What's an example of - calling something in a fire one word in Australian English and another word in American English?
MCKECHNIE: Just one small one is - in America, you use the term drainage to describe, obviously, valleys and ravines in the hillsides and in the topography. In Australia, we would normally use terms like gully and sometimes valley. And it's that tiny little difference - a drainage compared to a gully - is how we describe something. And that's why, when we came into the States, the team here at the National Interagency Center in Boise were absolutely wonderful. They provided a day of training and familiarization...
MCKECHNIE: ...So that our teams could understand some of those subtle differences.
KING: How long will you be in the United States?
MCKECHNIE: So our team, all up, will be away from home for just on six weeks with a little bit of travel, obviously, either side of the time they're at work. They'll do two 14-day rotations or stints on the fire line with the local crews, but they're six weeks away from their families.
KING: New South Wales, which is where you're from, is in the middle of what some people have called the worst drought in living memory. Over 500 bush fires are burning there now as winter ends in Australia. Are you nervous about being away from home?
MCKECHNIE: You're entirely right. The drought at home is absolutely terrible and, you know, a lot of the land is suffering and the people who work that land are doing it very tough at the moment. We are just coming out of our winter season, heading into our summer, and we're seeing more bush and grass fires, as we term them, occurring for this time of the year. At this stage, those fires aren't turning into fires that can't be controlled, but certainly with our own fire season ahead of us, we do have some significant concerns for how that'll go with such dry conditions.
KING: And so are you hoping for American help when summer comes to Australia later this year?
MCKECHNIE: Look - it will depend on how we go in our season, but I'm quite positive that, should we have a terrible season, that if we were to put out the call for help, I'm sure their colleagues here in America would look to come and help us as they have before and as our teams have - coming over here this year.
KING: Peter McKechnie is National Wildland Fire liaison for Australia and New Zealand. Thank you, Mr. McKechnie.
MCKECHNIE: Thank you very much.
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