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Wildfires

Meet the NWT firefighters heading to Australia


The NWT government has revealed more about the mission four of the territory’s firefighters will carry out in Australia as wildfires continue to burn millions of hectares of bush, forest, and parks.

Air support group supervisor Marlon Labach, resource unit leader Raelene Lamalice, air tanker base manager Spencer Porter, and aerial observer Jonathan Williams were scheduled to depart on January 16 and 17 from Vancouver.

Labach, Lamalice, and Porter will be based in the state of Victoria, while Williams is being sent to South Australia. 

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Their deployment marks the first time the NWT has sent firefighters to the country. 

The four are expected to be in Australia for 30 days, doing similar jobs to what they do back home – although they might have to learn different processes. Their first few days on the ground will be spent in orientation.

What will they be doing in Australia?

Porter, who lives in Fort Smith, has been part of the NWT government’s wildfire operations team since 2016. 

“He’ll be responsible for ensuring all the aircraft that are getting loaded with retardant for the air tankers that help fight the fires, that they’re being serviced and able to do their job,” said Mike Gravel, director of forest management for the NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR).

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Gravel said Lamalice, from Hay River, will “gather all the intelligence related to the fire – all the personnel and things that are going on – and coordinate that and make sure the planning section stays on top of their planning needs.”

This is not Lamalice’s first time being deployed – she has also helped fight fires in Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. She spent nearly a decade with the NWT government in various forest management and wildfire operations capacities.

Labach, the air support group supervisor, will be based at an airport coordinating all aircraft and helicopters as they enter and exit a staging area.

When working in the NWT each summer, Labach is an air attack officer. 

Williams, who is being sent to a different part of the country than his colleagues, will be filling an aerial observer role. Like Labach, he is an air attack officer in the NWT.

“His role will be flying every day above the action,” explained Gravel. “So wherever the tankers are working, he’ll be flying above them and essentially monitoring activities from the sky – identifying anything that needs to be dealt with tactically on the ground, or otherwise in the air.”

How was the team chosen?

Gravel explained the NWT team was chosen by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) in Winnipeg, which received the request for help from Australia. 

The coordination centre forwarded the request on and the NWT looked at qualified crew members who had a passport.

The NWT submitted its qualified staff. Ultimately, CIFFC assessed the entire country’s list before selecting a team. 

The four firefighters will join 24 other wildfire personnel from across the country, environment minister Shane Thompson said on Thursday afternoon. They will be a part of the sixth deployment from Canada since Australia’s wildfire crisis began.

The department is not sure if more people will be sent, but said staff would watch as requests come in and forward names of qualified firefighters who are eager to help.

“I know the staff are very excited and thrilled to be able to support Australia and represent the Northwest Territories,” said Gravel. 

He added the department has already talked to the team flying out and asked them to share what they’ve learned when they get back.

“We’ve never been there before … They’re going to have different ways of doing things,” he said. “They may have different pieces of equipment or technology that we’re not aware of.

“So we look forward to them going and doing their role as well and then bring them back to us their experiences.”

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