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South African crews return home after month-long northern fire battle

Crews head back home after fire fights in eastern Manitoba, near Flin Flon and Snow Lake
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A file photo of South African firefighters battling a blaze.

After over a month of fighting fires in northern Manitoba - including blazes near Flin Flon - a 109-person firefighting unit from South Africa has headed home.

Firefighting crews from South Africa Working on Fire have left Manitoba after over a month of fighting a series of remote and northern blazes throughout the province.

Organized through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), the South African firefighters came to Manitoba when forest fire season was at a boiling point. Well over a hundred Canadian firefighters and trained military personnel came to the province to assist - returning the favour for when Manitoba firefighters headed out of province to help elsewhere. Despite the extra hands and equipment, more people were still needed, leading to the call to bring in help from South Africa.

The team came to the province August 11 and were deployed to two areas - the Loon Straits complex of fires, burning on the east shore of Lake Winnipeg near Bloodvein, Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids, then later to the Flin Flon/Sherridon/Snow Lake area. 

This past summer has been one of the worst fire seasons in northern Manitoba in recent years. As of Sept. 15, 444 fires have burned throughout the province, the vast majority of which have been found in northern areas. Over 1.25 million hectares of land in Manitoba has been burned this summer, but only 38 fires are still burning as of Sept. 15 - only two of which, the WE032 and WE047 fires burning north of Snow Lake, are still considered "out of control". No new hotspots have been reported in any fires burning within 100 kilometres of Flin Flon in the last two days.

While in Manitoba, the South African team became known not only for their expertise in fighting fires, but for their jovial dances and singing in different communities where they were stationed, including at Winnipeg's Richardson International Airport on arrival and in Flin Flon. Video of the group dancing up Highway 10A during a brief stopover in Flin Flon was shared to community social media pages and featured by some Manitoba media outlets.

In a provincial news release, minister for Manitoba Conservation and Climate Sarah Guillemard said the South African crews "were welcomed to these communities and brought professionalism and dedication to their jobs, as well as great team spirit shown through their colourful marching, chanting and singing at Richardson International Airport in Winnipeg upon their arrival and when moving through the communities where they were deployed."

“As Manitobans, we say thank you to everyone who answered the call for assistance as wildfires raged across our province due to the extremely dry conditions this summer. Just as Manitoba has sent firefighting crews to help in other provinces and other countries such as Australia in 2020, this year was our time to request the support of others. South Africa will forever hold a place in the hearts of Manitobans and be remembered as an international partner that we can count on should the need arise again in the future.”

South Africa Working on Fire managing director Trevor Abrahams said that the South African crews would return home with new knowledge and some memories - including getting up close and personal with bears while at camp up north.

“We leave Manitoba grateful for the opportunity to have been of service and will take home the lessons from this experience, including the extensive use of water pumps, long lines of hoses and the reliance on air transport to get to the fires,” said Abrahams.

“We feel we fit in well with the local crews and appreciate the praise and support of the local fire commanders. The team enjoyed their camping experience near the fire line and some interesting encounters with the local bear population.”