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Brush Fires In Australia Force Emergency Declarations, Evacuations

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Look at some of the images coming out of Australia of the bushfires that have swept across the eastern part of the country - showers of embers, houses and buildings destroyed, orange skies. And it's hard to believe the situation could get worse. But that's the reality with hot weather and strong winds forecast for days ahead. Thousands of volunteer firefighters are defending what they can. And we have reached Mick Holton, president of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association, who is in the state of New South Wales and joins us via Skype. Welcome to the program, sir.

MICK HOLTON: Yeah, thanks for having me on board, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is your strategy when the fires are this big and this extensive?

HOLTON: Well, realistically, with the fuel loads that we've got and the drought conditions and the current weather conditions that we have, frankly, we can't put these large fires out. We are, in some areas, able to steer them, control them to some degree. But we are really at the mercy of the conditions at the moment. We're paying the price for probably lack of fuel management, really. That's where our association stands.

INSKEEP: OK. Lack of fuel management. We should explain that for the layman. If there is a lot of bush out there to burn, there are things maybe you could have anticipated a year ago or three years ago to get that fuel down. That's what you're saying didn't happen?

HOLTON: Yeah. There's quite a divide here in Australia on where we should go. Our association is pushing for return to Indigenous-style land management, which is cool or mild burns. It's quite an interesting scenario. I've had a lot of experience as a firefighter. I did 22 years as a full-time firefighter in in Sydney. And now I'm, as you know, president of the Volunteer Fire Fighter Association and a firefighter with the Rural Fire Service. But after all those years, I'm still learning a whole lot about the bush. And there's a lot to learn. We really need to take all this in, look at what Indigenous people did, look at what early pioneers and farmers and graziers used to do, particularly in the high country.

INSKEEP: Yeah. I guess that - you're talking about this - sometimes called controlled burns in the United States, deliberately setting fires from time to time, so things don't build up to this massive extent. But now you're in the situation that you are in. Is the government helping your people enough?

HOLTON: Well, we did a big push to get some more support for our volunteers. And we've had a bit of a win in that area. We certainly - we've got a situation where the government has now agreed to cover at least out-of-pocket expenses. So we were pushing to get our volunteers covered in that area. We didn't think it was right that they should go without. They don't want to get paid, but they - it's not right that we have them spending money and not being able to claim anything back.

INSKEEP: And in many cases - and we just got about 10 seconds - I guess people must just need to stay out of the way of the fires, even if they're firefighters, because you don't want to get killed doing - fighting a fire you can't stop.

HOLTON: Yeah. Well, we've got everyone in there doing a fantastic job - farmers, private units. This is a massive - we're very short of resources. That's where it's a big concern.

INSKEEP: Mr. Holton, thank you very much.

HOLTON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Mick Holton is president of Australia's Volunteer Fire Fighters Association. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.