As wildfires continue to ravage their homeland, Australians living in Minnesota are feeling a kaleidoscope of emotions — fear, grief and gratitude.
Many who are members of the Australian New Zealand American Association (ANZAA) have family members and friends in areas blackened by the wildfires.
Longtime member Anoushka Haas said the main problem for friends back in her home city of Sydney is smoke-fouled air. For those in rural areas, the situation is much more dire.
Haas’ longtime friend Colin Burns, 72, a volunteer firefighter whom she called by his nickname “Rover,” was one of at least 24 people who have died in the fires, according to the New York Times. He was found dead Jan. 3 in his burned-out car.
“It’s difficult and lonely, and it wasn’t [just] a loss of my friend, but the loss of a kind soul who was a generous and warmhearted person to all he met,” Haas said. “He was a volunteer firefighter, he modified his truck to run on biodiesel to minimize his impact on the environment, and he never said a bad word about anybody.
“The hardest part is not going back for the funeral, and not being around people who knew him that I could talk to,” she said.
The danger faced by Australian firefighters and citizens has prompted the National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho to send U.S. fire experts to help fight the blaze.
Two Minnesota firefighters are assisting in Australia, and more could be on the way, said the center’s Carrie Bilbao.
“They’ve requested another larger group, which will probably be more than a hundred firefighters,” Bilbao said.
The United States has a partnership agreement with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Mexico when wildfires occur. For instance, Australia and New Zealand sent firefighters to the United States in 2018, Bilbao said.
Firefighter Mike Crook, a Grand Marais resident based in the Superior National Forest, arrived in Victoria, a state in southeastern Australia, in December. An expert on fire behavior, he is monitoring blazes near there until Jan. 25. Marty Cassellius, with the Bureau of Indian Affairs Midwest Regional Office in Bloomington, also is in Victoria. He is responsible for ground fire suppression efforts until he returns Jan. 28.
ANZAA member Jodi Cassidy has lived in Minneapolis for 14 years. Her parents still live high on the South Coast, where New Year’s Eve wildfires approached their doorstep.
Fire moved around her father’s house, taking out structures on the next street over, she said. It was an even closer call for her mother, who lives farther south.
The fire “came within about half a mile of her house,” Cassidy said. “Very luckily for them was that they had an easterly breeze and it was very hot. The fires were raging toward the coast, and then a southerly [wind] came in, and that saved them. That pushed the fire back on itself and pushed it back the other way.”
Many residents lost power, so it took three days for her to find out if her mother was safe.
“The fear of the unknown was the hardest part. You know, I kept telling myself that they were OK,” Cassidy said. “Looking at maps and things like that, it didn’t look like it had reached them, but when you don’t have confirmation, you can’t talk to them, you don’t know.”
Cassidy and Haas’ Twin Cities acquaintances are closely following the bush fires, too. Haas’ friends have donated money to help those affected by the fire, and Cassidy’s are following her updates on Facebook, especially about her cousin, who lost his home to fire.
For those interested in donating to help fire victims, the two suggested the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the Australian Red Cross and other Australia-based charities.
“When I finally got to talk to my mom, she was just in awe of the world and in particular the USA,” Cassidy said. “She was like, ‘Jodi, you won’t believe the donations that people are giving, and they know about us.’ You know, they’re in a tiny little corner of the world, a long way away, but she was just in awe of what people were donating.”
Zoë Jackson • 612-673-7112