‘We are ready for it’: South African firefighters land in Edmonton, eager to help battle Fort McMurray wildfire

Click to play video: 'Fort McMurray wildfire battle gets help from 300 South African firefighters' Fort McMurray wildfire battle gets help from 300 South African firefighters
WATCH ABOVE: On Sunday night, 300 firefighters from Johannesburg, South Africa arrived to help fight the wildfire burning in northeastern Alberta. Julia Wong reports live from the Edmonton International Airport – May 30, 2016

Firefighting efforts in Fort McMurray are going to get a big boost from crews from the other side of the world.

On Sunday night, 300 firefighters from Johannesburg, South Africa arrived at the Edmonton International Airport. They will soon make their way to the front lines of the blaze, which has been burning since the beginning of the month.

The firefighters were greeted with cheers and clapping as they made their way to the arrivals area. There were some evacuees at the airport waiting to welcome the firefighters.

Ryan Byers lives in Spruce Grove but has a second home in Anzac. He was evacuated after the fire started moving in that direction.

He and his son Colby wanted to greet the firefighters from South Africa.

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“Let’s go down and give these guys a heroes’ welcome. They’re coming to our aid and we need them and we’re very happy they’re here,” he said.

As the firefighters trickled out into the arrivals area, they assembled into different groups.

Eudance Thethe, 28, has been a firefighter for five years. He came to Alberta last year to help battle some blazes.

“I’ve been excited a lot. It means the work we did last year, it shows that we put more effort, and that’s why they called us again to come and assist Canada,” he said.

“Firefighters from South Africa, they will provide team morale, singing before and after work, and that helps keep us going.”

Despite the 22 hour journey from South Africa to Edmonton, the firefighters were energized and broke out into song and dance for those at the airport.

Malekgoa Letwaba, 28, has been a firefighter for four years and was also in Alberta last year battling blazes.

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“It feels pretty good. We are ready for it, can’t wait to do our job,” she said.

However, she admits there are differences between her country and Canada.

“Mostly the terrain is quite different from ours but we’ll adapt and it’ll be good.”

Letwaba said she hopes Canadian and South African firefighters can learn from one another.

“We got our different ways of doing things and you guys do as well. We’ll combine [them] and do a great job, all of us. [We] learn from you guys and you guys learn from us. We like singing and dancing so we’ll teach you guys a couple songs as well.”

Travis Fairweather, a wildfire information officer with Alberta Wildfire, said the province often calls on firefighters from South Africa.

“Anytime they’re willing to lend their support, we’re happy to have them,” he said.

He notes that there is an agreement between Canada and South Africa through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.

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Fairweather said the firefighters received training prior to arrival. They will have a 14-day deployment in Fort McMurray and then officials will re-evaluate whether the firefighters should remain or return to South Africa.

The firefighters will have a rest day on Monday, a briefing on Tuesday and will fly to Fort McMurray on Wednesday.

Currently, 2,267 firefighters are either already battling blazes across Alberta or are en route to do so. Over 800 of those firefighters are from out of province.

READ MORE: Fort McMurray wildfire: ‘We expect weeks, if not months, fighting this fire’

The firefighters arrived in a Boeing 777-200LR charter flight. The flight departed Johannesburg on Sunday at 6 a.m. local time as AC7007.

READ MORE: Phased re-entry plan for oil sands camps near Fort McMurray begins

The plane then made a technical stop in Barbados for a crew change and to re-fuel. It landed at the Edmonton International Airport just before 9:30 p.m. on Sunday.

 Editor’s note: This post was updated to reflect that the flight will not stop in Toronto before landing in Edmonton. The flight originated in Toronto.


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