McInnis fosters relationship with Australian firefighters | PostIndependent.com
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McInnis fosters relationship with Australian firefighters

Men and women on western firelines soon may be hearing some “G’day mates” from others dressed in yellow and green.

U.S. Rep. Scott Mcinnis, R-Grand Junction, has introduced legislation that looks Down Under for assistance in fighting the forest fire epidemic in the West.

The measure, introduced Wednesday, makes additional firefighters available, including tapping Australians for the 2002 wildfire season and beyond.

McInnis said the bill could clear the way for upwards of 4,000 firefighters to respond to the fires.

“America is currently at a level five state of preparedness, which means we are on high alert and need reinforcements to combat these fires. The military has been called in to assist, and firefighters are en route to the state from all over the country,” McInnis said in a prepared statement. “But let’s be realistic for a moment: The official fire season has just begun, yet we have been fighting fires for over two months. We are stretched thin and additional resources will be well received.”

As a result of drought conditions and overpopulated forests, western states currently face an environmental and public safety crisis, according to McInnis. As of Wednesday, active fires had consumed almost 850,000 acres of forests, bringing the total acreage to 2.6 million acres burned this year. Current manpower levels are deemed sufficient to combat the fires; however, a shortage of well-trained and experienced fire chiefs is currently affecting response to these devastating fires, McInnis said.

There is a pressing need for approximately 100 seasonal firefighters with technical expertise in middle-level supervisory positions. Current firefighting rules requires one mid-level manager for every 20 rank and file firefighters in the field. With 200 Australian firefighters with supervisory-level skill and experience slated to come to the United States, the legislation could clear the way for as many as 4,000 firefighters in the field, McInnis said.

The measure would tap the Australians’ help during what is their winter.

“We have a situation here where we have the manpower, but need the expertise to battle these blazes. Australia has these experts, and they are willing to help,” McInnis said. “I guarantee their help will be well received.”

McInnis’ legislation would amend the Wildfire Suppression Assistance Act of 1988, which allows the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture to enter into reciprocal agreements with foreign fire organizations for mutual aid in wildfire protection. The bill would eliminate the risk of tort liability to foreign firefighters and their governments while foreign personnel are providing assistance to the United States.

In addition, it would require that foreign countries or states extend a reciprocal benefit to U.S. firefighters in the event the United States provides assistance to them.

The proposed legislation would also deem foreign firefighters to be federal employees for the limited purpose of securing them coverage under the Federal Tort Claims Act. It would make the laws of the host country the only source of remedies available for acts and omissions in firefighting activities in the host country.

The proposed legislation further provides that neither the firefighter, the sending country, nor any organization associated with the firefighter shall be liable for any action resulting from fighting fires.

“After this fire season, Congress has an obligation to do everything within its power to prevent these tragic fires from happening again,” McInnis said.


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