U.S. Forest Service firefighter with ties to Grayling helped battle blazes in Australia
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
A firefighter who trains in Grayling and has family ties in the community started the year off fast and furious by helping with the devastating wildfires in Australia.
Brian Stearns, who is a firefighter for the Huron-Manistee National Forest, traveled to Australia and spent from December 28 to January 28 battling wildfires burning across the country.
Based in Oscoda, this was the first time Stearns has traveled overseas to assist with a fire. He notified his superiors that he was able to go, had the qualifications being sought as a heavy equipment operator, and had a passport to travel.
Stearns said he was pleased to help in the efforts to preserve land and animal habitat.
“It went fairly well,” he said.
When Stearns first arrived in the country, fire conditions were on the extreme end of the spectrum. Some precipitation helped quell the spread of the fires.
“With our numbers that we had to help out, I feel like we kind of helped turn the corner as far as getting some of the fire lines in and getting a handle on some of the fires that we were working on,” he said.
While some of the equipment and terminology used when fighting fires was different, Stearns said there was a heavy emphasis on manpower.
“There is a real sense of community over there,” he said. “It was just a unique experience to have folks from all over that nation to come over where the fires were and operate in that capacity.”
Instead of attacking the fire directly like they do in Michigan and the United States, Stearns said crews had to come in at angles to fight the blazes due to eucalyptus trees, a major contributor to wildfires and forest fires.
“It has a tendency to fall over after the fire,” said Stearns, adding that one firefighter died from injuries due to a falling tree which landed on him.
Stearns was stationed in Omeo, which is located in the State of Victoria. He said like wildfires in the United States, impacted wildlife are turned over to state agencies to be cared for.
“There was an emphasis over there, maybe more so over there, because it was making headlines on how much wildlife was being impacted, displaced, and affected by wildfires,” he said.
Stearns, who has a wife and two kids, was still getting over jet lag after returning home last week.
“It is very good to be home,” he said.
Stearns grew up in Alma, where his grandfather, Bud, was the fire chief. His dad, Pat, was a contractor, and Brian learned to operate bulldozers while he was growing up.
While attending Lake Superior State University, Brian took classes to become a certified firefighter since he worked for the Huron-Manistee National Forest during his summers off.
“Because I was doing that in the summer, it just kind of lined up. The first fire I fought, I decided that this is what I want to do,” he said.
Pat and Nancy Stearns, Brian’s parents, live in Grayling and have paddled on the Manistee River and held family gatherings in the community for years.
“We love this river here,” Nancy said.
Brian is often away from his home and family for several weeks of the year when wildfires breakout in the West in the United States.
“I enjoy the work and there is also that drive to help our communities and I take that responsibility seriously,” he said.
Stearns spends a fair amount of time in Grayling visiting his parents as well as cross training with firefighters at Camp Grayling.
Nancy said that Brian’s assignment in Australia ranked right up there with his brother, Daniel, who served in the armed forces in Iraq.
“It was big surprise and I didn’t know that he was looking to do that,” she said. “It’s really hard when your kids are out in a dangerous position, but he loves what he does, so I can’t wish for him to do anything else.”