South Africa

LOCAL HEROES

SA firefighters arrive back from Canada as a third team prepares to head for Quebec

SA firefighters arrive back from Canada as a third team prepares to head for Quebec
From left: Firefighter Dineo Malatji; one of the Working on Fire teams in Canada; and Godirwamang Asiel Modise. (Photos: Supplied)

Canada’s wildfires show no sign of letting up and the country has asked South Africa to send more firefighters to help battle the blazes. Two South African teams have already shown they have what it takes to quell fires that have already displaced 5,000 people.

Mzanzi One, the first team of South African firefighters to arrive in Canada in early June, flew out of Edmonton on Saturday night and were due back in Mpumalanga on Sunday evening.

Speaking to Daily Maverick before boarding the flight home, Trevor Abrahams, managing director of Working on Fire, confirmed that 214 officers were being relieved by a third team, who would depart for Quebec in a week’s time.

Abrahams said fires in Alberta had heated up again and Mzansi Two was already in the field, fighting flames.

Abrahams said the situation was conducive for fire partly because of “crossover conditions”, created by low humidity and high temperatures. Low moisture content of the air and hotter air meant “burning conditions will become more intense”.

At a media briefing on Thursday, Canadian ministers and officials said 648 fires were still burning, with 339 fires “designated as burning out of control”. Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair released the latest fire forecast, which he said, “… outlines a high likelihood of heightened fire activity through the next two months … In July most of Canada from British Columbia through to the north, through to the Prairies and across the country to Western Labrador, will be at high risk”.

Breakdown of fires burning across Canada on 7 July 2023. (Image: Supplied)

Blair added: “And as we move into August, while the total area does decrease especially in Eastern Canada, at-risk areas still are projected to include western Canada, the north, Ontario and western Quebec.” 

About 5,000 people have been displaced by the fires, with some having lost their homes to the blazes.

Mzanzi One returns from Canada

The fire forecast in Canada on 8 July 2023. (Image: Supplied)

Conditions on the ground show a dire need for support, from the South African firefighters. At the end of June, The New York Times reported that, including the South Africans firefighters, there were about 1,500 foreign firefighters in Canada – from the e US, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Chile, Spain, Portugal, France and Mexico.

However, Abrahams told Daily Maverick, European countries now needed their firefighters to return as their fire seasons were starting. The US was not far behind, with the Washington Post reporting last week: “The US wildfire season has been eerily quiet. That could soon change.

Abrahams said that while there were initial indications of the South African firefighters being seen as cheap labour, it soon became clear they were very good at the job. He mentioned an incident in which an advanced technique was being discussed and the SA team looked likely to be excluded – until a Mzanzi team member offered advice and proceeded to demonstrate.

‘Women can be strong and fearless’

Dineo Margaret Malatji is from Bela Bela, Limpopo, and has been a firefighter for five years. The 27-year-old says women must not stand back and think they cannot be firefighters. Speaking to Daily Maverick from Edmonton, Malatjie said: “Women must go for it; it teaches us to be independent as young women, that we can be strong and fearless”.

Malatji heard about Working on Fire (WoF) from an “uncle-in-law”. She was curious, unemployed and followed up; and was accepted for training.

“There were 58 of us, both male and female. When the training and testing was done, only eight were chosen. Three women – my name was the first called – made it. It felt very good, it was a life-changing opportunity.”

Malatji said working 14-hour days means not much downtime in Canada. But she has enjoyed meeting some of the people they have helped. 

She has had her share of bear sightings. “One was so close, maybe 15m away, but we saw it before it saw us so we made some noise and it kept moving,” Malatji said with a chuckle.

It’s a good thing she has learnt some bear safety as she plans to return to firefighting in Canada at some point.

“It has been a good experience learning to deal with new terrain. Their surface is not the same as South Africa. You can extinguish a fire and think that you have completed the job, but then move on to another spot and you realise there is still smoke where you thought you had finished it.”

The South Africans are being paid in Canadian dollars, at the same rate as the Canadian firefighters. With most of her money, Malatji plans to build a house for my mother. “She deserves it.”

‘Great opportunity to gather more skills

Godirwamang Asiel Modise (29), a junior supervisor and crew leader  joined WoF in 2014. Modise, from Potchefstroom, said one of the things he enjoys about being a firefighter is always learning new skills.

“I learn each and every day. There is a great opportunity to gather more skills. Each and every opportunity that I get, I use it to the best of my ability.”

According to Statistics Canada, the Canadian population hit 40 million in June. More than 80% of the population live in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta – all currently on high alert for fire. DM

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