Two Australian firefighters, on patrol with US Forest Service personnel in Washington state, were set upon by hunters, chased and shot at in an incident which has reached officials within the Foreign Affairs Department.
The incident, which took place on August 23, shook Australia’s support operation in the north-west of the United States and led to demands for local fire services to upgrade security and guarantee the safety of the crew.
Nearly 80 Australian firefighters have been working with the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in northern California, Oregon and Washington since July, and were dispatched to the popular White Pass ski destination in August after fire spread across an eight square kilometre area.
The incident, which involved two Australians and two local officers, led to the arrest of the two hunters.
They were issued Violation Notices by USDA Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers for violation of the closure order. Further charges are pending.
The FBI said it was aware of the alleged incident, but was not involved in the investigation.
The remote area, 160 kilometres from Seattle, is close to land in Oregon where armed anti-government activists seized and occupied the wildlife refuge headquarters for more than a month in 2016.
Senior officials from the RFS, which sent 42 people to the fire, have also been briefed on the incident.
One of the Australian firefighters was the highly-experienced Daniel Barwick, an RFS volunteer who last year was awarded a National Medal for protecting the Lake George area, near Canberra.
“We are aware of the incident which occurred in August involving one of our firefighters, and we are happy the matter was dealt with by authorities in country,” an RFS spokesman told Fairfax Media.
It is understood the other Australian involved was an employee of Fire & Rescue NSW.
Fairfax Media has been told the hunters pursued the four across a ridge, despite being warned they were in a restricted area and should leave.
One of the local officers is understood to have used his phone to record a last message to his family, so concerned was he about the two hunters in pursuit.
However, all four managed to find cover and were later safely airlifted out of the area.
All Australian crews, which were managed by the National Resource Sharing Centre, returned over the weekend.
A DFAT spokeswoman declined to comment.
Armed stand-offs between federal officers in the US, including the Bureau of Land Management, have increased over recent years following the 2014 Bundy standoff between backers of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management, which led to a number of criminal charges being laid.
Bundy’s son, Ammon, was the leader of the 2016 Oregon incident at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, with the armed militants claiming the federal government had no authority over public lands.
Law enforcement officers eventually arrested 27 militants.
The US Forest Service was contacted for comment on Monday.
NSW Emergency Services Minister Troy Grant on Saturday welcomed the returning firefighters home, but did not mention the Washington state incident.
“These men and women put their lives on hold to go and support their international counterparts,” he said.
Fire & Rescue NSW could not be reached for comment.