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How Australia is fighting fires while also mounting recovery effort

As devastating bushfires continue to burn across Australia, how is the country’s government responding? William Brangham speaks with David Littleproud, Australia’s minister for natural disaster and emergency management, about fighting fires while also embarking upon a recovery effort, whether the country has enough personnel and equipment and how it's preparing for hotter, longer fire seasons.

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  • William Brangham:

    To examine the extent of the damage and the Australian government's response, I'm joined now by David Littleproud. He's the minister responsible for natural disasters and emergency response in Australia.

    Minister, thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

    Could you just give us a sense of where you are now in the fight against these fires?

  • David Littleproud:

    We are currently working up our response to the recovery, but also to the situation that's unfolding over the weekend.

    Again, we're concerned ability worsening weather conditions. But, later today, after the prime minister and I meet with our National Security Committee, we will be going out and visiting a number of communities nearby, less than a couple hundred kilometers away from Canberra, who have borne the brunt of these fires only in the last couple of days.

    And we will be going to look at what the needed in terms of recovery. But we're tackling this on two levels, one in terms of recovery. These fires have been going since September in some parts of the country. And they're still going.

    So, some parts, we're going to help with the recovery. Others, we're still fighting. So it's multitasked at the moment in terms of how we're responding to this disaster.

  • William Brangham:

    Many Americans here were surprised to learn that the vast majority of firefighters in Australia are volunteers.

    Given the vastness of the fires, do you have any enough manpower and enough equipment to fight these fires adequately?

  • David Littleproud:

    Yes, look, we're very proud as a nation.

    There is 200-odd-thousand volunteer firefighters. That's nearly 10 percent — or 1 percent of our population. And for them to be able to put themselves out there, to put their safety on the line for our fellow Australian says a lot about our nation. And we're proud of that.

    And that comes because we're dispersed, geographically dispersed, into a number of small towns right across this vast continent. So, we obviously make sure that they're equipped with the best tools that are required, and complemented by aerial assets that we lease much from the Northern Hemisphere.

    We obviously work closely. And, in fact, we have got nearly 250 of firefighters from the United States and Canada here now. And, in fact, I met them in Sydney Airport, some of them when they came in only about three weeks ago. And there's another cohort that came in only in the last 48 hours.

  • William Brangham:

    We know that there are thousands of people that have been evacuated from their homes and their towns.

    Where are those people living right now? And what's your sense of how long they have to stay away from home?

  • David Littleproud:

    Well, obviously, we try to repatriate them back into their homes as quickly as we possibly can.

    And that comes after safety checks, because a lot of the roads are lined with trees. And those trees have lost a lot of their integrity. And they have to be checked meticulously by arborists and firefighters.

    And then, as soon as that's done, we try to get people back to their homes, because that's the best way to recover, to rebuild lives, is to get them back to their homes. Those that, unfortunately, over the 2,000-odd homes that we have lost so far, those people are being looked after in centers, but, more so, they're being looked after by family and friends.

    Our insurance agencies have coming in and making sure that they're acting swiftly in terms of the recovery. Most of those homes are insured. Those that aren't, then, obviously, we're a rich nation. We're a proud nation. And we're making sure we look after one another.

    But, invariably, most are looked after by family and friends. We're close-knit communities, because a lot of these towns that have borne the brunt of this are in very small rural areas, where everyone knows everyone, and you look after one another, and that's what's been happening.

    That's the Australian way. And we're damn proud of it.

  • William Brangham:

    We heard in that report that we just played from some people who do live in those rural areas, who say they understand that it's important to move people into the cities and to be able to protect those denser areas.

    But that's got to be an enormous challenge for you as well, just trying to protect people who are spread over such a vast geographic area.

  • David Littleproud:

    It is.

    And, invariably, that's why a lot of the rural firefighters are volunteers, are landholders themselves. In fact, some of them — and, sadly, tragically, three of those volunteer firefighters have lost their life during this event. They have given the ultimate sacrifice to their community and their nation while defending someone else's life and someone else's property.

    But, invariably, a lot of these rural firefighters are volunteers. They're professionals, but they're volunteers. And a lot of their homes, they protect by making sure they're prepared.

    And this is — this, in fact, is one of the most of the severe fires in our nation's written history. The fact that, while, tragically, we have now lost 27 lives and just over 2,000 homes, without the professionalism of our full-time firefighters and our voluntary firefighters, this would have been a much more severe event in terms of loss of life and property.

    So, we're proud of what's happened. But we're obviously cognizant of continuing to do better in making sure that we're prepared, but also that our recovery is building back better, that the infrastructure that we build back is better, it's more resilient, and it makes sure that our people are more resilient and are safer for future events.

  • William Brangham:

    Climate change models have predicted exactly really what is unfolding, longer droughts, hotter heat waves, that make the conditions ripe for these kinds of wildfires.

    Are you all prepared, as some here in the U.S., like in California, have been saying, that this could be the new normal for you?

  • David Littleproud:

    Yes, well, look, what I'm most proud of, in terms of our fire commissioners from all our states, is the meticulous planning they undertook, well before this event.

    When I became emergency service minister in June last year, the first advice I got was that the season was going to be earlier, it was going to be more severe, and it was going to be protracted for longer periods.

    They were right. And they prepared. And they collaborated with you guys in the Northern Hemisphere. And that's one thing, that this has become a global effort. And I think we should be very proud that we have been able to work collaboratively.

    And our research and development is collaborated between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and our assets are.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Minister David Littleproud, thank you very much your time. And best of luck to you fighting these fires.

  • David Littleproud:

    Thank you.

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