Some three dozen South African firefighters, clad in their bright yellow jackets and dark blue pants, danced, sang and cheered in a sprawling parking lot near the majestic woods of central Alberta. The mood was light as the men and women smiled and clapped, some taking out smartphones to record video of their dancing colleagues before heading off to another day battling the fires raging through Canada.
The group gathered on an early July day in the small town of Fox Creek had traveled nearly 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) to help fight the hundreds of devastating wildfires that have burned homes and wild lands in the region, destroying an area about the size of the U.S. state of Virginia. They chanted and worked through drills before signing a Canadian flag presented to them as a token of thanks.
In a record-breaking year for Canada’s wildfires, with crews coming from around the world to help, the South Africans are a familiar and uplifting sight. This year’s deployment is the fifth — and largest — for the men and women in Working on Fire, a public works program for young people that serves as South Africa’s wildland fire agency.
Their rich harmony and movement travel with them everywhere they go, said Trevor Abrahams, Working on Fire’s managing director. It was on display in early June, when more than 200 firefighters were filmed singing and clapping in the Edmonton airport after arriving to help with the fires, drawing millions of views on TikTok.
“That part is part of our tradition,” Abrahams said. “At work they will be singing to a rhythm during the busy work. All the teams sing and make up songs as they go along.
The company has had as many as 428 firefighters in Canada this summer, when rampaging wildfires have sent dangerous levels of smoke pollution south across big swaths of the United States and as far as Europe. Their tours of duty run 35 days, hard work on different terrain and with different tools than those used at home.
“The fires in Canada are very different from fires in South Africa,” said Thuto Ganya, one of the firefighters. He said his crew was not familiar with smoldering peat fires that can burn below ground in the Canada woods, and they are still getting used to “all those diggings.”
Abrahams said the overseas deployments are a prestigious assignment for the crews.
“Coming to assistance on an international platform is certainly something they take with more than a pinch of pride,” he said.
They adjust to the differences fast. As their crews are divided into smaller teams for work in different areas, they try to team experienced firefighters with those new to North America, Abrahams said. They learn how to load heavy equipment into a helicopter safely and how to carry a shovel near the chopper — even when it’s not running. They have to be vigilant for the danger of shallow-rooted trees toppling at any moment.
In South Africa, wildland fires are typically much smaller than those seen in Canada and without nearly as much fuel. They’re usually fought by men and women carrying backpacks with 20 liters of water and tankers nearby to resupply them, Abrahams said.
Canada arms its firefighters with more advanced and detailed weather forecasts, and with information on moisture content in vegetation. Firefighters also use infrared scans to spot hot spots — technology not routinely used in South Africa. And South Africa firefighting doesn’t rely on the massive water-carrying planes nor the kilometers of hose that are routinely laid to fires in Canada, Abrahams said.
The Canadian deployments have become routine enough that Working on Fire trains its firefighters in how to operate a particular pump that is a fixture in fighting Canadian fires but little used back home.
Ganya, who has a girlfriend and a 2-year-old back home, said his team had just come back from two days of rest, when they visited a mall and saw fireworks.
“I’d love to come here as often as I could because I love this place. It’s a very quiet place. I’m in love with it,” he said, smiling. “It’s just a lot of peace of mind.”