Andrew Stewart said his first glimpse of a Canadian wildfire left quite an impression.
The South Australian Fire Service firefighter arrived in Canada on June 8 and was deployed to the blazing bushfire near Edson, Alta, about 125 miles west of Edmonton.
“We could see multiple plumes of smoke in the area and ahead of us we could tell from the fire behavior we could see and the smoke we could see that they were quite intense fires moving through the forest at a fast, rapid pace in high fuel loads. , ‘he said.
“From that we knew we had some important days ahead of us.”
Stewart is one of hundreds of overseas firefighters who have deployed to help with Canada’s worst wildfire season in a century.
As of Wednesday, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center, there were:
102 firefighters from France in Quebec
327 US firefighters in Alberta and Quebec
218 Australian firefighters in Alberta
40 New Zealand firefighters in Alberta
40 firefighters from Costa Rica in Alberta
60 Chilean firefighters in Alberta
200 firefighters from South Africa in Alberta
80 firefighters from Spain in Quebec
140 firefighters from Portugal in Quebec
Sietse Vandermeulen, a ranger with Alberta Wildfire, said the help is invaluable.
“We’d be in a much bigger battle right now,” Vandermeulen said if Alberta didn’t have foreign firefighters helping fight the flames.
In addition to experience fighting fires, Vandermeulen said the international firefighters bring something intangible.
“We have been stuck working day in and day out. That positivity, that enthusiasm and that eagerness to work and help was phenomenal for us. A good morale boost for sure,” he said.
Stewart started out as a cadet in the National Fire Service in his hometown of Gawler, outside Adelaide in South Australia.
By the time he was 16 years old, he was responding to fires.
He says this trip to Canada is his first time abroad.
“I think (my family) was excited and nervous at the same time. They’ve seen the extreme fire behavior and crazy videos going around social media and our news platforms in Australia, but they’re very proud that our family can come and support Canada and represent Australia in providing wildfire support,” he said.
Australia is no stranger to massive wildfires and Canadians have often played a supporting role.
Stewart said it was a good idea for him to help.
“The firefighting industry is a great brotherhood and sisterhood, so it’s good to return the favor,” he said.
“I get a lot of satisfaction from helping the community. That’s not just my local community, but the wider human population. I get a lot of gratitude for that,” he said.
Stewart will be in Alberta for about 40 days and said he’s already picked up a few things while working in Canada.
“We tend to use a lot more fire trucks with water to put out hot spots. I noticed here that we use a lot more machines and hand tools and hand plows to put out fires, which has meant a change of mindset for us, but it’s still becoming very effective in the line of fire to control these fires,” he said.
Antoinette Jini has been a firefighter for 12 years with Working on Fire, a program in South Africa that sends firefighters to assist with national and international bushfires.
Jini makes sure the crews understand the orders given to them, explaining that the English spoken in South Africa is sometimes different from the English spoken in Canada.
And she is no stranger to Canada: she helped with fires in High Level, Alta., in 2019 and in Manitoba in 2021.
“Our crews are used to being deployed when needed, in terms of the intensity of the fire and the power. We know how to manage our fatigue and we know how to work very professionally,” she said.
She said she has been strengthened by the relationship between South Africa and Alberta.
“Canadians are warm, welcoming people. We like to learn because what we do in the operations – we sing before we start our day. We sing, we pray and sing our national anthem,” she said.
“We learn to deal with people and to work together. But the goal is the assignment”
Like Stewart, Jini said her crew’s experiences here will help when they return to South Africa.
“They’ve seen the crownfires. We’ve learned it in lessons (but) we’ve actually been given the chance to see a crownfire. We’ve learned something different. home,” she said.
Jini, a mother of three, said she will remain in Alberta until mid-July, adding that her family fully supports her in aiding in the gunfight in Canada.
“They don’t cry when I leave,” she said. “They understand. They are my first supporters in everything.”