SA Firefighters Go To Canada

By Jessie Taylor 

More than 400 firefighters have travelled from South Africa to Canada, to aid in extensive efforts to quell wildfires in Alberta, Canada. The wildfires have raged since March and have affected 11 provinces. At least 30 000 people have been evacuated from their homes. Smoke from the wildfires has caused air quality alerts and evacuations in the US and Europe. While the wildfire season is Canada runs from May to October, it does not usually bring such severe destruction so early in the season. This has prompted scientists to speculate that this year could be the most destructive wildfire season on record.

Battling Climate Change

At the centre of the devastation is extreme temperatures and drought, driven by climate change. Canada in particular is warming twice as parts as the global average, according to studies by scientists employed by the Canadian government, and large fires have been increasing significantly.

The country, and much of the continent, has experienced record levels of heat and drought. And due to warming temperatures, the fire season is now longer with Spring starting weeks earlier. Scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2021 found that the conditions likely to encourage wildfires – dry, hot, windy conditions – are increasing in parts of the world and are likely to become more common.

The Canadian Wildland Fire Information System has estimated that the destruction from this season’s fires has been 13 times worse than the 10-year average. The area has also been experiencing a prolonged period of drought. The Canada Drought Monitor found that prairie provinces – such as Alberta –have been particularly hard hit by drought, with 10 provinces experiencing abnormal dryness, moderate or severe drought. `

Canadian Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson said that updated modelling shows that the 2023 wildfire season will “once again be serious” in many areas of Canada.

“The federal government is working with provincial and territorial counterparts, as well as with Indigenous communities, to ensure continued support for those impacted by these fires. As we battle this year’s fire season, we are also making significant long-term investments to ensure that we are prepared to mitigate and adapt to the effects of future wildfire seasons. Over the past eight years, the federal government has made wildfire management a top priority and will continue to do so.”

Minister Wilkinson explained that Canada’s first National Adaptation Strategy, released in November, for a final period of engagement, sets an overarching vision for climate resilience in Canada, including with respect to disaster resilience. The Government of Canada Adaptation Action Plan, released alongside the Strategy, announced new funding to reduce the risks of wildfire.


A Helping Hand

Among the Canadian government’s plans to fight wildfires are partnerships with indigenous groups, local emergency services, and international firefighting agencies. The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s Working on Fire programme is deployed two teams, each made up of more than 200 firefighters and management staff, to assist with firefighting and fire suppression efforts. The deployment is the fifth time Working on Fire teams have travelled to Canada.

Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy said the request for urgent assistance came from the Canadian Inter-agency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC) in terms of the existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Canada and South Africa. The MOU, signed in 2019, provides for the exchange of wildland fire management resources between South Africa and Canada. It was put in place following two earlier deployments to Canada to suppress wildfires in Alberta and Manitoba.

Alberta has already experienced more than 550 wildfires this season resulting in significant damage to property and infrastructure, and displacing thousands of people. The 2023 Canadian deployment team comprises pump-trained firefighters, who have more than three years of actual firefighting experience. Twenty-five per cent of the selected firefighters are women. The crews are to be deployed in Canada for 35 days, with their return scheduled for between 10 and 21 July. A number of the team members have previous international firefighting experience, which further enhances their expertise in tackling complex fire situations, said Minister Creecy.

“We are proud of the fact that South Africa is again able to assist Canadian firefighting teams in their battle to bring the wildfires under control. The extensive experience and training of these firefighters will significantly enhance efforts to effectively suppress and manage the wildfires in Alberta,” said Minister Creecy.