BODALLA, Australia—Crews battling Australias wildfires said on Jan. 12 that theyve been able to turn from defense to offense for the first time in weeks, thanks to a break in the weather.
Dale McLean, who is helping manage the response to a fire near the town of Bodalla in New South Wales state, was part of a team that was bulldozing down small trees and burning scrub ahead of the fires projected path to try to stop it from reaching a major highway by starving it of fuel.
“This fire took a major run about seven or eight days ago, and with the weather changing now, the weather settling down, the fire has settled down,” he said. “The fire behavior has changed. So were able to get in front of the fire now, get on the offensive.”
Other workers echoed McLeans comments, saying cooler temperatures and mild winds have finally offered them a chance to make progress. The weather is expected to remain benign for the next week, although any deterioration in conditions after that could see the wildfires flare up again.
While battling the blazes, volunteer firefighting veteran Mick Stain found some moth larvae, or “witchetty grubs,” and turned them into whats known in Australia as bush tucker by roasting them directly on the fires burning coals.
“Bit creamy and nutty, but theyre all right,” Stain said. “Theyre not spew-worthy, so theyre pretty good.”
Meanwhile, U.S. tennis star Serena Williams donated her $43,000 winners check from New Zealands ASB Classic to the fundraising appeal for victims of the wildfires, joining many other tennis stars to pledge money, including Ash Barty, Nick Kygrios, Novak Djokovic, and Maria Sharapova.
Also on Jan. 12, news came that another firefighter had been killed. Bill Slade—one of the few professionals among mainly volunteer brigades battling blazes across southeast Australia—died after being hit by a falling tree on Jan. 11 near Omeo in eastern Victoria state, Forest Fire Management Victoria Executive Director Chris Hardman said.
The 60-year-old married father of two was commended in November for 40 years of service with the forestry agency.
“Although we do have enormous experience in identifying hazardous trees, sometimes these tree failures cant be predicted,” Hardman said. “Working on the fire ground in a forest environment is a dynamic, high-risk environment, and it carries with it significant risk.”
The tragedy brings the death toll to at least 27 in a crisis that has destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched an area larger than the U.S. state of Indiana since September. Four of the casualties have been firefighters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that 76 million Australian dollars ($52 million) would be spent on providing psychological counseling for firefighters and fire-affected communities as part of a previously announced AU$2 billion ($1.4 billion) recovery fund.
“There has been a deep scar in the landscape that has been left right across our country,” Morrison said. “But I am also very mindful, as is the government, of the very real scars that will be there for quite a period of time to come for those whove been exposed to the trauma of these bushfires.”