South African firefighters head home after stint helping out in Manitoba

Dozens of wildfire firefighters from South Africa headed home Tuesday, but not before celebrating the completion of their effort helping Manitoba manage scores of blazes this summer.

The group sang and danced in their hotel parking lot before catching flights home.

“We [had] a great experience,” said wildfire firefighter Anotoinette Jini. “We felt welcome and it was a privilege.”

The South African firefighters were based at a camp at Cold Lake, Man., near the fires they were focused on.

Jini said being based so close to the fire line was an eye-opening experience for her colleagues, who are more used to travelling great distances daily to get to trouble spots.

She said it was fulfilling to be a part of an effort that helped stave off further destruction of property and land.

Anotoinette Jini and Boipuso Mtimkulu say the crew learned valuable new skills fighting wildfire in a new environment that they will take home with them. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Trevor Abrahams said this was the forth deployment of South African firefighters to Canada to date.

“It’s truly an exchange, which in the context of climate change, we see something as growing going into the future,” he said.

Crew leader Boipuso Mtimkulu said Manitoba terrain was at times more challenging than what firefighters are used to back home. It was also unusual having to target peat fires that burn underground, he said.

“Another thing that is important to us: the Canadians, they give us brothers and sisters in [the] fire line that we share an experience and everything we have with them. They treat us well.”

The plan is to hold debriefings back home on lessons learned to see what else can be leveraged for firefighting efforts in South Africa.

“We feel very grateful,” Jini said.

Members of the unit paraded Canadian and South African flags in the hotel parking lot before leaving. (Walther Bernal/CBC)