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Lightning strikes, trees burning from the inside — and bears — are all in a day’s work for SA firefighters in Canada

Lightning strikes, trees burning from the inside — and bears — are all in a day’s work for SA firefighters in Canada
SA Working on Fire Foxtrot team in action in mid-June on Deep Creek Complex fires. Hundreds of South African firefighters were deployed to Canada to help battle wildfires. (Photo: Supplied)

More South African firefighters could soon be en route to Canada to help battle the country's still-raging fires.

The weekend saw the smoke from fires along Canada’s east coast cast a pall over a large swathe of North America. In the US, by Friday, 21 states had issued air quality warnings, warning citizens of hazardous contaminants. Health authorities called for people to wear masks outdoors and, if possible, to stay inside until the air quality improved.

Speaking to Daily Maverick from Alberta, Canada, on Sunday, South African Trevor Abrahams, managing director of Working on Fire, said the weather pattern had developed positively for fire fighting as “precipitation and the temperature is higher than the humidity … but across Canada, the weather changes dramatically from day to day”. He says the extreme weather brings precipitation and cooling, but also lightning – “so you can’t be too optimistic”.

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Phumlani Nqayi of the Working on Fire Foxtrot team in action. South African firefighters have been helping fire and rescue workers in Canada battle their most devastating wildfire season on record. (Photo: Supplied)

More than 100 million people have been affected by air quality in the US, owing to smoke from Canada’s wildfires. A smoky haze covered Toronto last week. It recorded the worst air quality in the world with authorities handing out N95 masks and cancelling outdoor events. 

Toronto was closely followed by Montreal, Washington DC and New York City, which is undergoing its worst air quality on record. New York state governor Kathy Hochul says residents are experiencing the effects of climate change, right now.

On the ground in Canada, Abrahams receives a situation report “from all our teams daily in the morning and in the evening”.

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According to reports, more than 8.1m hectares across the country have been burnt by the wildfires. (Photo: Supplied)

Daily Maverick first caught up with Abrahams on Saturday, when he told us he had seen estimates that say “160 million tonnes of pollution has gone into the atmosphere from the fires to date”. Asked how the air quality is affecting the SA firefighters on the ground in Alberta, he says:

“You’d be surprised to hear not that much … Ourselves at the fireline, it is not that bad. The wind seems to dissipate it.”

He says it is so bad over the US probably because “a particular jet stream of air carried it both (to the US) and as far as Norway, Portugal and Spain”.

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Hundreds of South African firefighters have been deployed to Canada to help battle wildfires. (Photo: Supplied)

The fires are currently worse around Ontario and Quebec, but 113 fires are still ablaze in Alberta – down from 155. On Saturday, 1 July, the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) showed 563 active fires. 

Abrahams says Portugal, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica and the US have all sent firefighters, “although the Europeans are all heading back home now because their own fire season is getting a bit hot there”.

Abrahams says the SA firefighters have “been part of dousing a lot of the fires”. Talking to Daily Maverick on Saturday, he pauses at one point and says he can see lightning in the distance. It is 1pm and he sounds resigned.“I’m just looking out of the window and seeing lightning strikes to the west of Alberta – which is the major cause of fires.”

The fires have burnt across more hectares than in any previous fire season in the country. The current Canadian fire season runs into September.

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Daily situation map by the Canadian Forestry Fire Centre, 8 June 2023. (Image: Supplied)

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Daily situation map by the Canadian Forestry Fire Centre, 2 July 2023. (Image: Supplied)

Firefighters are also on high alert for trees burning from the inside because of peat and “so much organic material under the soil”, Abrahams says.

“One firefighter relayed that they were scouting for hotspots … Halfway up a tree, they saw the tree was smoking like a chimney. They got a chainsaw and cut through the tree and it was burning in the centre – from the roots.”

A related danger is posed by falling trees, he says. “The root structure of the tree – is a plate root – it spreads out laterally … When the fire burns these roots, just a little whiff of wind and these long tall trees just come tumbling down. So as our guys are working, one person is always on lookout.”

Abrahams has been in Canada since 4 June, having arrived with the first group of South African firefighters sent to assist with fighting fires that had started about a month earlier. Working on Fire is an Expanded Public Works Programme which trains unemployed youth to become firefighters.

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A firefighter from Working on Fire Juliet team douses a fire burning in the core of a tree, 16 June 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

Working on Fire says the firefighters who have been sent to Canada “have received specialised training in the use of water pumps and pump lines; they meet the Canadian fitness standards … and each firefighter has three or more years of firefighting experience”.

They are based at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where they stay when they arrive, to rest and before they go into, or go back to, the field. Abrahams explains that the size of the group means the Canadians need to house them and the university dorms were a good solution: “We are 215 [in] the first group and 213 the second group.”

Working on Fire employs 5,300 young people and some 60% have three years of firefighting experience. The teams include crew leaders and pump operators. The first group of firefighters – which arrived in Canada on 4 June – is scheduled to return to SA on 8 July, and there are talks of sending a third group of 215 to Quebec, when the second group returns to SA on 20 July.

As if fires and falling trees were not enough to deal with, Abrahams concludes:

“Oh, and I didn’t mention the bears … One guy was telling me last night he was walking and looked up and there was a bear on the trail. He froze, but when one of his unsuspecting teammates came walking up behind him, we think the bear felt outnumbered because it then moved away.” DM

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