California firefighters return from battling Australia fires


LOS ANGELES (AP) — As the wildland firefighters, fresh off a long flight from Australia, strode into a Los Angeles fire station Wednesday morning, Marvin Schober got his GoPro camera ready.

Schober wanted to capture his 41-year-old brother’s face as he realized his family was there to surprise him after nearly a month battling unprecedented fires half a world away.

“Those guys are superheroes,” Schober said.

His brother, Capt. Leonard Dimaculangan, was part of a crew of 20 firefighters — 18 men and two women — based at Angeles National Forest who had worked with the Victoria Rural Fire Service to fight southeast Australia’s devastating blazes. The fires have killed at least 33 people and destroyed more than 3,000 homes since September.

Dimaculangan, in a national forest uniform of a khaki shirt and green pants as well as a pin with the U.S. and Australian flags, was one of the last firefighters to enter the room. As he entered his mother clapped and his 11-year-old daughter, Promise, threw her arms around him.

“I’m now going to ask him to help me with my homework,” Promise joked.

Usually his parents and Promise greet him after he returns from long-distance fires but his brother and sister surprised him as well.

“It’s my support system,” said Dimaculangan, who has been a federal firefighter for 20 years. “That’s what I work for and hopefully I get to have some more quality time with them in the next couple days.”

More than 200 firefighters from federal agencies have been sent to Australia to fight bushfires there for the first time since 2010, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Firefighters from Australia previously deployed to Northern California in 2018 to help with wildfires.

Angeles National Forest sprawls over more than 1,090 square miles (2,823 square kilometers) of the San Gabriel Mountains, which form a wilderness backdrop to metropolitan Los Angeles.

Engineer Johnny Summers said Angeles firefighters will now spend the winter doing prescribed burns in the forest.

The Angeles crew’s time was marked by tragedy when a tanker plane crashed last month, killing its three American crew members who worked for Canada-based Coulson Aviation.

The Angeles firefighters said the crash occurred when they had a day off and they learned about the deaths at a briefing the next day.

“You know it’s part of the job and it might happen but you never think it’s going to happen,” assistant engineer Hector Cerna said.

Cerna said he was looking forward to seeing his wife and children after missing his 7-year-old son’s birthday Tuesday.

He’d promised the kids a trip to Legoland to celebrate — and had brought back stuffed kangaroo and koala toys for extra presents.