South Lake Tahoe fire captain back home after battling Australia's wildfires

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MEYERS, Calif. (KTXL) -- Capt. Dave Soldavini, a United States Forest Service firefighter based in South Lake Tahoe, spent the past month helping battle the wildfires raging in Australia.

"A couple days before Christmas I got a phone call saying, ‘Get your stuff ready, you're leaving on the 30th,’" Capt. Soldavini told FOX40.

He said the fire intensity there is similar to what California has experienced in recent years.

"A lot of what we dealt with was keeping the fire in check so that it didn't have a chance to get up and run again," he explained.

But Australia's many eucalyptus trees cause fire to behave even more dangerously.

"It's more aerodynamic,” Soldavini said. “So, it's able to go aloft and travel further distances just because of the design of the bark."

On Wednesday, he said he was still processing the experience.

"It was kind of heartbreaking at times,” he said. “I heard some horrible stories I don't care to repeat."

Capt. Dave Soldavini holding an orphaned joey in Australia. (Photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit)

But there were moments of joy that he will treasure for life.

One was captured in a photograph that has been shared around the world. In it, Capt. Soldavini is comforting a young, orphaned kangaroo, also known as a joey.

He said the animal seemed relieved.

"Like it knew it was safe and I'm sure the previous 24 hours had been really traumatic for it,” he told FOX40. “And it just seemed like, ‘OK, I can take a nap now. I can relax.’ And yeah, it seemed to know that it was going to be taken care of."

The joey was handed off to an animal rescuer.

Soldavini was also photographed visiting a different kangaroo. It was being treated for burns with medical supplies firefighters paid for out of pocket.

"You know, with everything that had happened and the stories we heard, it was like, hey, here's one bit of compassion we can show to a living thing. And yeah, I'm very proud of that," he told FOX40.

He said he was happy to be back on South Lake Tahoe soil.

"Walking the dog on ice in 20-degree temperatures, yeah, it's a bit different," Soldavini said with a chuckle.

But he also said he's glad he answered the call to be of service 8,000 miles away.

"Really more than anything, what I learned is just the value of compassion for people, what they're going through, for animals. They have feelings too," he said. "And getting to be part of that effort was a very, very rewarding experience."

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