March 28, 2020

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ABOVE THE FOLD

Manitobans home after 38 days in Australian inferno, willing to return

As black skies loomed overhead during one of their drives to work in New South Wales, Australia, Andrew Prokopchuk and Gerry Rosset knew they had many long nights ahead.

"It was very eerie," Prokopchuk said moments after he embraced his wife Patti after landing back at Winnipeg's airport Thursday afternoon.

The two Manitoba conservation officers were part of the first group of 21 Canadian firefighters deployed to help battle massive wildfires in Australia at the beginning of December.

RUTH BONNEVILLE  /  WINNIPEG FREE PRESS  

Andrew Prokopchuk is all smiles as he's greeted by his wife Patti.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Andrew Prokopchuk is all smiles as he's greeted by his wife Patti.

They returned home Thursday after a 38-day stint helping Australian officials chart a course for the continuing firefight, leaving behind three other Manitobans who are still deployed in other areas of the country.

Rosset and Prokopchuk have nearly 70 years of firefighting experience between them, and when conservation officers with their specialized training were asked to go to Australia to help emergency officials plan and direct front-line resources, they were among the first Manitobans to volunteer.

They were stationed on the southeastern coast of New South Wales, about 200 kilometres south of Sydney.

When they got there, they saw the largest, most complex fire either of them had ever encountered. The fire they were assigned to, one of many bushfires that have taken the lives of more than 20 Australians and millions of animals since August, had burned 400,000 hectares. The outer limits of the fire stretched on for more than 1,000 kilometres.

"It's a difficult situation, but the people are coping, they're managing. They have a lot of support amongst themselves, there's many donations coming in for the people that have lost everything. The support is there from what I can see," Rosset said. "The country is rallying together."

Dan Himbrechts / The Associated Press Files</p><p>Rural fire service crews fight the Gospers Mountain Fire in New South Wales on Dec. 21, 2019. Rural firefighting services are state-based and mostly voluntary.</p></p>

Dan Himbrechts / The Associated Press Files

Rural fire service crews fight the Gospers Mountain Fire in New South Wales on Dec. 21, 2019. Rural firefighting services are state-based and mostly voluntary.

While happy to be home, both conservation officers said they would be glad to return to Australia if needed, acknowledging crews there have a long fight.

"There's no real good rains in sight for months," Prokopchuk said. "It's going to be a hot, dry summer for them yet. They've got a battle ahead of themselves."

RUTH BONNEVILLE  /  WINNIPEG FREE PRESS 

Andrew Prokopchuk (left) was responsible for mapping fires, while Gerry Rosset worked to plan strategies for front-line firefighters.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Andrew Prokopchuk (left) was responsible for mapping fires, while Gerry Rosset worked to plan strategies for front-line firefighters.

Rosset said he's proud Canadian teams were able to help.

"The co-operation is great and it's good to see that Manitoba is offering up resources because one day we may request Australia's assistance (if we) need it," he said. "It's a good experience. It's good to help out a country in need."

In his role, Prokopchuk was responsible for mapping fires, while Rosset worked to plan strategies for front-line firefighters.

"With their technology, they have jet planes that fly over and scan the fire, it's called line scanning, so they take pictures of all the hot spots, and that's how we map our fire, through the line scan. It's really high-tech," Prokopchuk said.

NASA via The Associated Press</p><p>

Thick smoke blankets southeastern Australia along the border of Victoria and New South Wales in a Jan. 2 file photo captured by NASA's Terra satellite.</p>

NASA via The Associated Press

Thick smoke blankets southeastern Australia along the border of Victoria and New South Wales in a Jan. 2 file photo captured by NASA's Terra satellite.

Working nights through the holidays, including Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, the pair planned for — and witnessed — volatile conditions. They said they were well-briefed by Australian officials once they arrived. Through their office work, they came into contact with many who've suffered loss due to the fires.

"We spoke to a lot of people that have lost farms, buildings, houses, cottages," Prokopchuk said, adding that as Canadians, they were warmly welcomed.

"All the staff that you work with, and the public, any place we'd go, people would want to hug us. There was tears. Yeah, really well-received," he said.

On Nov. 29, the Winnipeg-based Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre received an official request to send staff to help with the wildfires. Prokopchuk and Rosset flew to Sydney Dec. 3.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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Updated on Thursday, January 9, 2020 at 9:48 PM CST: Fixes typos

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