A team of five French firefighting experts are in Australia to provide support in the bushfire crisis. But the experienced team say they've never seen fires like this before.
Colonel Bruno Ulliac has almost 40 years’ experience fighting fires across Europe and South America - but says he was still shocked when he came face-to-face with Australia's devastating bushfires.
The veteran of last year's horror Amazonian rainforest fires and the recent Siberian wildfires is in Australia with his team to assist in bushfire fighting efforts.
But he said his team were still grappling with the sheer size of the Australian crisis.
“We never deal with a fire like that,” he told SBS News.
“It is an amazing fire, we never dealt with and we need to respect what the Australian firefighters did and are still doing every day.”
Colonel Ulliac and his team of five French firefighting experts are working with their Australian counterparts and have already been on the ground in Victoria as bushfires rage across the state.
Next, they're being deployed to New South Wales to share best practice and evaluate the scale of the French bilateral assistance that could be deployed in the next few weeks should Australian authorities request such support.
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said he had spoken to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to offer French aid in dealing with bushfires.
French Ambassador Christophe Penot said there was "great emotion" in France concerning the bushfires.
“Because of the scale of the fires, the loss of human life, the terrible devastation of wildlife, the material destruction of homes and farms,” he said.
“I think French people are very moved.”
Comrades in arms
Colonel Ulliac believes firefighters around the world are like a family.
“If our brothers and sisters from Australia need some help we will arrive,” he said.
“The Anzac troops were very involved with France during the First World War, and you paid a very important tribute for that and we need to respect that, and that's why we are here to support you.”
Colonel Pierre Schaller is also part of the French team and said even 45 years on the job had not prepared him for the scale of the Australian bushfire crisis.
“When we arrived last week we had the confirmation that we were going to see something completely unusual that none of us had known before even in our long operational experience,” he said.
He said in Europe fires are considered "big: when they cover around 1,000 hectares.
“[But] in Australia we have learnt to make a different count, with millions of hectares – it changes completely the philosophy and the operational practice that you have to implement in these situations," he said.
“We saw fires that did not walk, we saw fires that ran about 10kilometres per hour, we [have] never seen this.”
French support during the bushfire crisis
The support doesn’t end with the firefighting experts: French communities are taking action in a short of solidarity.
Teachers and students from the Jacques Brel College in Villers Bretonneux have written a letter of support to 36 fire stations in Australia – honouring the historical ties between the Somme and Australia since WW1.
They’ll also be marching in solidarity with bushfire victims next month and have set up an online fundraising solidarity fund.
Volunteers in Cherbourg-Octeville are knitting bags for Australia animals injured by the bushfires, while a French clothing company has launched a koala-themed sweatshirt to help animals, with a quarter of its price donated to an Australian association.
Colonel Burno Ulliac said that while his team is in Australia to help, they have much to learn.
“You are very resilient people , you got so many fires since long time… and you still continue to learn about, to fight.... you are resilient people and we [can] learn a lot," he said.
His colleague Colonel Schaller couldn’t agree more.
“We were amazed because these guys and girls have been working for months without stopping and we know it is very difficult to keep the energy and the will to work after some weeks on duty,” he said.
“It is difficult to see where the end is… so it asks very clearly for strong mental skills and we are full of respect for this.”