South African firefighters return home after helping to battle wildland blazes in Canada

More than 100 Working on Fire firefighters were deployed to Canada in early August to assist with that country’s wildfire crisis. The programme offered youngsters an opportunity they may never have gotten otherwise and was instrumental in controlling the wildland fires, a fingerprint of the climate crisis.

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More than 100 South African firefighters returned home on Thursday morning after 36 days of helping to fight wildland fires in Canada. 

As they marched through sliding doors into the arrivals terminal of Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport, chanting and whistling, in heavy boots and bright yellow uniforms, fellow travellers (usually in a rush to catch their flight) couldn’t help but stop and look, wondering who they were and where they had been. 

On 10 August firefighters from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s Working on Fire programme were deployed to Manitoba in Canada to assist with wildland firefighting efforts. 

Canada has been experiencing record-breaking heat associated with dry weather, which caused large wildland fires that exhausted local wildland fire management resources. They were experiencing high fire dangers and reached National Preparedness Level 5 (the highest level of fire activity). 

“It was beyond their capacity. By the time we came in, the people they had were exhausted already,” said Trevor Abrahams, Working on Fire (WOF) managing director and Canada deployment team leader. 

South African firefighters were asked to assist because in 2019, the South African government signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Canadian government to allow for the exchange of wildland fire management resources between these two countries. The agreement is managed through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), allowing the CIFFC to call on SA firefighting support for Canada. 

Kim Connors, the director of the CIFFC, said: “This is the fourth deployment for South Africa since 2015 and it is becoming a trend. We do not have enough resources to battle these fires and we relied on our international support

“South Africa joined Australian and Mexican firefighters, as well as our own, and we are becoming more comfortable sharing resources and knowledge. There are many opportunities to improve on, especially in training.” 

Abrahams told Daily Maverick, “It’s the first time they’ve actually drawn on international support. In Canada, what they do is they generally draw on neighbouring provinces to make up the gap. 

“They’ve got levels of activity from one to five and when they get up to Level 3, they start shouting for [national] help. When it goes higher, they shout for international help. So this year there were three provinces experiencing Level 5 simultaneously.” 

Abrahams ensured that with 5,000 firefighters in total, the remaining WOF firefighters could comfortably manage the fire season at home. 

© Provided by Daily Maverick Working on Fire colleagues welcome the team home at OR Tambo International Airport. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Linton Rensburg, the national communication manager at the WOF, told Daily Maverick that the firefighters were stationed at Loon Straits in the eastern sector of Winnipeg province for the first two weeks of their deployment before moving to the Cold Lake complex in the western sector to assist with fires there.  

Warren Toderan, operations chief of the Loon Straits branch of Manitoba Wildfire Services, said the SA firefighters “showed extreme professionalism and hardworking skills. Any objective was accomplished immediately and effectively. Every crew member was always smiling, even when they were placed in wet swamps and difficult working conditions.

“This was my first time as a Manitoba firefighter to have the chance to work with SA crews. It was a rewarding experience I will never forget. I learnt so much about the culture and many similarities and different challenges we face in our respective countries.” 

Karabo Kwenaite (22), from Pretoria, was working with his father as a panel beater when he joined the WOF programme. Four years later he boarded a plane for the first time when he was chosen for the deployment in Canada.  

© Provided by Daily Maverick Karabo Kwenaite (22), from Pretoria, was working with his dad as a panel beater when he heard about and joined the WOF programme. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Kwenaite said, “What I like about firefighters is they teach us respect, discipline, a lot of other skills. They teach us almost everything that is happening in life.” 

He said that they worked long days, sometimes 14 hours (7am-9pm). “We worked very hard and we were not lazy. So we were proud of our work. And we were also teaching them how to sing our songs.” 

The firefighters were divided into five groups of 21: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta and Echo.  

Bopipuso Mtimkuku, from North West said that during the deployment, “We [were] working like a hungry lion that is hunting for their child. I like the way they show Canadians how we do things in South Africa.” 

Katleho Mahlaba, from the Free State base said, “I would love to come for another deployment. It’s my duty, it’s my job, it’s my responsibility because of the love of nature and saving lives.” 

Johannes Modimola from Limpopo said, “We came here and we showed that we can stand on our own.”

The WOF teams participated in extinguishing and controlling five major fires in the province. When they left on 16 September, Canada had moved to National Preparedness Level 2, a clear indication that the  wildfires were subsiding – either extinguished or under control.

At a farewell dinner for the WOF firefighters hosted by Manitoba Wildfire Services, Sarah Guillemard, the minister of conservation and climate change for Manitoba, said: “South Africa will forever hold a special place in our hearts here in Canada and Manitoba. We know we can count on you as an international partner, in our time of need. Your attitude, song and enthusiasm could be heard across the country. Your deployment was truly inspiring.” 

Abrahams said, “For our people who come from unemployment, from the poorer sectors of our community, to receive that kind of recognition on an international stage is very important.” 

© Provided by Daily Maverick Trevor Abrahams (left, in cap), High Commissioner Christopher Cooter (centre, red mask), and the commissioner’s wife Karen Cooter (right). (Photo: Julia Evans)

We didn’t start the fire 

The large, widespread wildland fires Canada has been experiencing are a result of atypical drought conditions which caused a lack of moisture on the vegetation and trees. Abrahams said the wildland fires in Canada were mainly set off by lighting, which ignites the dry vegetation, and fuelled by wind. 

Johan Botha, the South African-born assistant deputy minister of emergency services in Canada, explained that there are two main indicators of these drought conditions being unusual. 

The first is that the drought affected food security, which saw cattle farmers having to sell their stock because they could not afford the feed. The second is that the lack of moisture lessened the growth of berries, which  black bears eat, resulting in the bears raiding kitchens. During their deployment three bears had to be killed for the firefighters’ safety. Abrahams said the bears aren’t usually aggressive, except when they are desperate for food.

© Provided by Daily Maverick WOF firefighters airlifted to the fire operation. (Photo: Working on Fire)

Climate crisis 

Abrahams said at the welcome and recognition ceremony, “Part of the problem that we’re having in Canada is a global one, and that is climate change.” 

The unprecedented dry and hot conditions that Canada has been experiencing are a result of global warming and the subsequent climate crisis. 

Professor Francois Engelbrecht, lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC in 2018 and a contributor to the recent IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, told Daily Maverick that these mega wildfires events, increasing in magnitude and frequency globally (like the one Canada is experiencing now), are a clear fingerprint of climate change. 

Guillemard said, “The effects of climate change have become increasingly more evident in the past year, and it is these mutual partnerships, agreements, and aid, such as ours, that aid in the mitigation of fires, can help.” 

Nonhlanhla Mkhize, deputy director-general of environmental programmes at the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) said, “We are concerned and we recognise that climate change is one of the contributing factors.” ​​ 

Canadian High Commissioner in South Africa, Christopher Cooter said, “With climate change, I think, unfortunately, we have to expect that we are going to see higher temperatures. 

“You may have heard that this year, we had the highest temperatures on record in British Columbia, that was five degrees higher than the previous recording temperature, which is awful and incredible. And the terrible wildfires have ensued because of that.” 

© Provided by Daily Maverick SA firefighters teaching Canadian firefighters local SA songs. (Photo: Working on Fire)

Employment programme 

The WOF programme is administered through the Expanded Public Works Programme and provides work opportunities, skills training and personal development to communities across South Africa, mostly young people, with about 30% being women. 

“It’s got three basic objectives,” explained Abrahams. “One is to address the unemployment amongst our youth. The second is to train them up and skill them up to get further employment in the formal economy. The third is to provide a social good in the form of managing fire.” 

Firefighter Kwenaite said, “I would like to thank Working on Fire for giving me this opportunity. I really appreciate this moment in my life. 

“WOF is trying to improve unemployment in SA… because as you are growing, some young people are graduating, but there is no job for them, so… I’m grateful to them for giving me that opportunity.” 

The WOF is a government-funded initiative and Mkhize of the DFFE said that it would continue to invest in the programme. 

“What is also unique [about the WOF programme] and contributes to addressing our own national challenges in terms of the high levels of unemployment, is that here we are responding to a crisis related to climate change, but in a way that builds capacity, creates work opportunities, particularly for the young.” 

© Provided by Daily Maverick Portia Paleli (26) from Welkom, who has been fighting fires for seven years. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Over its 18 years of operation 15,000 people have gone through the programme. “Many of them go on to jobs in the police, in military, in conservation agencies, municipalities… some of them get trained into skilled labour,” says Abrahams. 

This was the WOF firefighters’ fourth deployment to Canada, with Abrahams stating it was their most successful mission ever. But in 2016, things didn’t go so smoothly. 

During that deployment the SA firefighters halted their efforts and returned home early, allegedly over a wage dispute after discovering the Canadian firefighters were being paid more than them. 

When asked if this would occur again, Rensburg said that the Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) which South Africa signed in 2019  ensures that the SA firefighters receive remuneration at the same level as the wildland firefighters in Canada. 

Rensburg added, “All travel, accommodation, food and incidental allowances are also covered separately by this agreement. 

“What people must understand is that the issues of 2016 was addressed through this MOU and we went back in June 2019 and now again in this deployment.  

“This is a life-changing opportunity for these young men and women.  Importantly, during Women’s Month there are 28 women firefighters and two of them leading teams in Canada … these are significant achievements.” 

One of the 28 female firefighters was Portia Paleli (26) from Welkom, who has been fighting fires for seven years. 

Paleli said: “You’re competing with men. But for now, I can say that WOF has given us that opportunity, so that we can see that not only men are strong but we as women are strong.” 

Masselo Koao from the Free State said, “Gender doesn’t count. It doesn’t matter if you are a lady, or you are a man. If you are a firefighter, you are a firefighter.” DM/OBP

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