300 South African firefighters are trained and headed to Fort McMurray
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
When she saw the Fort McMurray wildfire on television, Sibongile Zwane admits she found it 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 will be one of 300 South African firefighters flying into Alberta to help fight the massive blaze near Fort McMurray.
“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 in 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. And so on Saturday she was preparing for the 18-hour flight to Edmonton on a chartered Air Canada Boeing 777, which arrived in Johannesburg on Saturday morning to pick up the firefighters.
The huge Alberta 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 on the blaze, the Canadian firefighters need a break, and the South Africans will help to step into the breach for several weeks.
“That fire is so big and they can’t extinguish it and they need help,” Ms. Zwane said. “I’m excited to go. The Canadians taught us how to extinguish those tall fires with special hoses.”