A group of over 300 South African firefighters and their management have arrived in Canada to help fight a massive blaze, singing with local spirit to boost morale.
The group is part of international firefighting organization, Working on Fire, who was answering a formal request from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) to help battle a blaze wreaking havoc in the country.
They will join over 2,000 firefighters currently battling the fire, which destroyed part of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and continues to burn out of control, covering almost 580,000 hectares, according to CBC News.
One of the firefighters, Sibongile Zwane admits she found it all frightening. In all her firefighting experience in the South African bush, she had never seen flames leaping across roads and climbing to the tops of tall pine trees.
But on Sunday, after a 10-day boot camp by Canadian trainers, she was one of 300 South African firefighters flying into Alberta to help fight the massive blaze near Fort McMurray. Their chartered Air Canada flight from Johannesburg arrived in Edmonton late on Sunday night after a 24-hour journey.
“I’m not afraid any more,” the 21-year-old firefighter says. “They’ve trained us on what to expect. I’m strong now. I’m a firefighter and we have to help.”
The mission is the biggest ever non-military deployment of South Africans to help a foreign country. For the exhausted Canadian firefighters, the impressively fit and well-trained South Africans will be a welcome relief.
The South African government sees it as repaying a debt to the Canadian people for their support for the anti-apartheid struggle. But it’s also a strategy for changing the lives of unemployed South African youths. The jobless young men and women were recruited for a government-funded organization called Working on Fire, which has trained 5,000 firefighters to serve on 200 bases across South Africa.
Ms. Zwane, from a small town near Johannesburg, has never travelled outside South Africa before. Indeed she has never even been an airplane before.
But last Monday, the call came from Canada: Firefighters were needed in Alberta. The huge wildfire, which forced 80,000 people to flee from Fort McMurray this month, now covers more than 5,200 square kilometres of forest. After more than a month of gruelling work, the Canadian firefighters need a break now, and the South Africans will help to step into the breach.
At a farewell ceremony on Saturday at their temporary camp near Johannesburg, the 300 firefighters danced and sang the morale-building songs that they sing daily in the bush. “We are confident, we are excited,” they sang in the Zulu language.
Sandra McCardell, the Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa, said Canada is “incredibly grateful” for the assistance.
The firefighters will be there for the next month to assist.
Upon landing, the team burst into song, drawing smiles and media attention from onlookers. According to one firefighter, the singing is to boost morale and to forge stronger relationships between the fighters ahead of their harrowing task.