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  • Writer's pictureThe Pulse

Meet the International Firefighters Battling Canada's Worst Wildfire Season in a Century

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

South African firefighters work on a wildfire burning near Edson, Alberta.
South African firefighters work on a wildfire burning near Edson, Alberta. (Credit/Alberta Wildfire)

Andrew Stewart said his first glimpse of a Canadian wildfire left quite the impression.

The firefighter from the South Australian Country Fire Service arrived in Canada on June 8 and was deployed to the wildfire burning near Edson, Alta., roughly 200 kilometres west of Edmonton.

"We could see multiple plumes of smoke in the local area and for us, we could tell from the fire behaviour we could see, and the smoke we could see, they were fairly intense fires moving at a rapid, rapid rate through the forest in high fuel loads," he said.

"From that, we knew we're going to have some significant days ahead of us."

Stewart is one of hundreds of firefighters from overseas that have pitched in to assist in Canada's worst wildfire season in a century.

Andrew Stewart for CBC
Andrew Stewart has been a firefighter since he was 16 years old. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, as of Wednesday, there were:

  • 102 firefighters from France in Quebec

  • 327 firefighters from the U.S. in Alberta and Quebec

  • 218 firefighters from Australia in Alberta

  • 40 firefighters from New Zealand in Alberta

  • 40 firefighters from Costa Rica in Alberta

  • 60 firefighters from Chile in Alberta

  • 200 firefighters from South Africa in Alberta

  • 80 firefighters from Spain in Quebec

  • 140 firefighters from Portugal in Quebec

Sietse Vandermeulen, a forestry officer with Alberta Wildfire, said the help is invaluable.

"We would be going through a lot larger struggle right now," if Alberta did not have overseas firefighters helping fight the flames, Vandermeulen said.

Along with bringing experience fighting fires, Vandermeulen said the international firefighters bring something intangible.

"We've been bogged down working day in and day out. To have that positivity, to have that enthusiasm and that eagerness to work and help out has been phenomenal for us. A good morale boost for sure," he said.

Reciprocal support

Stewart started as a cadet with the country fire service in his hometown of Gawler, outside of 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 overseas.

"I think [my family was] excited and nervous at the same time. They've seen the extreme fire behavior and crazy videos getting 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 bushfire support," he said.

Australia is no stranger to massive wildfires and Canadians have often played a supporting role.

Stewart said it was a no-brainer for him to help out.

Australian firefighters have been deployed to Edson, Alberta to fight an out-of-control wildfire.
Australian firefighters have been deployed to Edson, Alberta to fight an out-of-control wildfire. (Alberta Wildfire)

"The firefighting industry is a big brotherhood and sisterhood so it's good to repay the favour," he said.

"I get a lot of satisfaction with helping the community. That's not just my local community but the wider human population. I get a lot of gratitude in that," he said.

Stewart will be in Alberta for roughly 40 days and said he has already picked up a few things while working in Canada.

"We tend to use a lot more fire trucks with water to extinguish hot spots. I found here that we're using a lot more machinery and hand tools and hand crews to extinguish fires, which has been a change of mindset for us but it's still been really effective on the fire line to control these fires," he said.

Joyful arrival

Antoinette Jini has been a firefighter with Working on Fire, a program in South Africa that sends firefighters to assist with national and international wildfires, for 12 years.

Jini ensures the crews understand the assignments being given to them, explaining that the English spoken in South Africa is sometimes different from what is spoken in Canada.

And she is no stranger to Canada: she helped out with fires in High Level, Alta., in 2019 and in Manitoba in 2021.

Antoinette Jini for CBC
Antoinette Jini has been a firefighter with Working on Fire for 12 years. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

"Our crews are used to being deployed when there is a need, in terms of the intensity of the fire and the strength. We know how to manage our fatigue and we know how to work very professionally," she said.

She said she is heartened by the relationship between South Africa and Alberta.

"Canadians are warm, welcoming people. We're enjoying to learn because what we do on the operations — we sing before we start our day. We sing, we pray and do our national anthem," she said.

"We learn to engage and collaborate with people. But the objective is the assignment"

Like Stewart, Jini said her crew's experiences here will help when they return to South Africa.

"They've seen the crowning fires. We learned it in classes [but] we actually got an opportunity to see a crowning fire. We've learned something different. And also, the mop up — the way it's done here, you make sure there's a lot of water … it's something different from home in that regard," she said.

Jini, a mother of three, said she will remain in Alberta until mid-July, adding her family fully supports her in helping out with the firefight in Canada.

"They don't cry if I'm leaving," she said. "They understand. They are my first supporters in everything."

Article originally published in CBC News, available at


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