Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy on Tuesday welcomed back a group of 45 Working on Fire (WoF) crew and their senior managers, who spent almost 30 days fighting fires at the Province of Alberta in Western Canada.
The team had been deployed to assist in combating the huge Chuckegg fire which burnt more than 350 000ha since May 2019, following a request by the Canadian Inter-Agency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC).
“What is most heartening to hear, is that because of your efforts, the boundary line remained unbreached by the fire. You stood with 1 180 firefighters from all over Canada, Mexico and the USA and said: ‘This far and no further,'” Creecy said in a statement.
The team left South Africa on June 24 to assist the Province of Alberta to combat its wildland fires. The situation was so severe that evacuation was effected in high-level and surrounding hamlets. Seven homes were lost in the fire and fortunately, there was no loss of life.
“This was a mammoth operation that the Canadians could not handle on their own, hence we lent a hand.”
The South African Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries has a memorandum of understanding with the Canadian Department of Natural Resources, in terms of which either country may request urgent support from the other with regards to wildfire management.
This was the third successful deployment between Canada and South Africa, bespeaking the importance of heightened cooperation and resource sharing agreements put in place by the international firefighting community, Creecy said.
The SA firefighters who helped douse flames in Canada. (Supplied: GCIS)
Subsequent to the receipt of the request, Working on Fire identified two 20-person Type 1 firefighting teams (based on experience, fitness and disciplinary record within the programme). The selections included firefighters who had experience in overseas deployment and those who had not yet had an opportunity to serve on overseas assignments. The 40 firefighters, of which 12 (30%) were women, came from all nine provinces in South Africa.
“The camaraderie built through your morning Working on Fire parade, will stand you in good stead in years to come. Almost all of you have reported benefiting greatly from the exposure to new techniques, approaches, equipment and the novelty of fighting underground fires,” said Creecy.
Working on Fire is an internationally renowned programme for its Integrated Fire Management services, which include creating fire awareness, proactively putting fire-preventative measures in place (such as prescribed burns and fuel-load reduction), veld and forest fire suppression, and rehabilitation of burnt areas.
The programme was launched in 2003 as part of the government’s drive to create jobs and alleviate poverty. It is one of several programmes in the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries that are implemented through the government’s Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP). The EPWP has been the primary vehicle through which the department has delivered on its job creation mandate while protecting the environment.
It is through the Working on Fire programme that the government continues to protect both plantation and indigenous forests. It is the same programme that played a significant role in putting down devastating fires on the Garden Route over the past two years.
The firefighters are recruited from marginalised communities and trained in fire awareness and education, prevention and fire-suppression skills. They are trained as veld and forest firefighters and are stationed in more than 200 teams throughout South Africa.
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