After a 34-day mission combating wildfires in Alberta, Canada, the Mzanzi 1 Hotshots team of the Working on Fire (WOF) Programme has returned home to South Africa. The contingent, consisting of 200 firefighters and 14 management personnel, arrived at the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport to a hero’s welcome on July 9, 2023, at 20:00 South African time.
Answering the urgent call from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), the Mzanzi 1 Hotshots ventured to Canada to assist in the face of significant wildland fire activity. During their deployment, these courageous firefighters demonstrated unwavering dedication and resilience, working tirelessly around the clock to combat the devastating wildfires that had plagued the province of Alberta.
Their commitment to the mission, exceptional firefighting skills, and unwavering positivity earned them widespread recognition and gratitude from both Canadian authorities and the local communities they served. The team not only showcased their remarkable firefighting abilities but also exemplified professionalism, selflessness, and the core values of the WOF program, including Accountability, Teamwork, Excellence, and Adaptability. Their efforts made a tangible difference in the lives of the people of Alberta.
While fighting fires alongside Canadian and international firefighters, the Mzanzi 1 Hotshots team had the opportunity to observe and learn from Canada’s methodologies, strategies, and best practices in wildfire management.
Sello Kobe, WOF’s Agency Representative, and Limpopo Ground Operations Manager, expressed, “This deployment presented an opportunity to meet and network on an international level with people from various countries who are in the same line of work. The exposure to Canada’s ways of managing wildfire situations and disasters has been a valuable learning experience. The education, knowledge, and extensive skills gained will undoubtedly benefit our operations here at home.”
As the Mzanzi 1 Hotshots touched down on home soil, they were met with warm applause and appreciation for their extraordinary efforts. Their homecoming marked a bittersweet moment for the firefighters, their families, friends, and fellow South Africans who celebrated their safe return and expressed immense pride in their accomplishments.
Wanda Siximba, the Strike Team Leader and Western Cape Ground Operations Manager shared her experience, saying, “The deployment brought practical experience in fighting underground fires, which are much different than here at home. However, it also brings some financial relief, and I will be able to invest in my son’s tertiary education and complete my many projects at home.”
While the Mzanzi 1 Hotshots returned to South Africa, the second WOF contingent, the Mzanzi 2 Hotshots, remains in Canada for a further two weeks, due to the country facing its most devastating wildfire season on record.
With 8.5 million hectares of land burned and 3,375 fires this year alone, compared to an average of just 484,000 hectares and 796 fires in Alberta, this fire season has been particularly severe.
Kim Connors, the Executive Director of CIFFC responsible for assisting Canadian provinces with firefighting resources, expressed his happiness with WOF’s fifth deployment to Canada. The Alberta Wildfire Incident Commanders also praised the WOF teams, commending their morale, and work ethic, and describing them as hardworking and dedicated individuals on the fire line.
The Mzanzi 1 Hotshots received excellent ratings in various areas, including their physical condition, mop-up operations, adherence to safety protocols, crew organization, and overall attitude.
Rieaz Shaik, the South African High Commissioner to Canada, extended praise and well wishes on behalf of the South African High Commission. He emphasised the significance of the South Africa-Canada Bi-National Commission’s agreement, which envisioned providing support in wildfire management when the need arose. Shaik stated, “Your efforts and your arrival in Edmonton, which have been extensively covered in the electronic and social media, have made us truly proud to be representing South Africa in Canada. These deployments will be reported at our next South Africa-Canada Annual Consultations, and we will certainly explore ways to enhance this cooperation in the field of wildfire management.”
The successful deployment of the Mzanzi 1 Hotshots in Canada highlights the vital role played by the Working on Fire Programme in South Africa and its contribution to international firefighting efforts. By empowering young men and women from disadvantaged communities through training and employment opportunities, the WOF Programme not only helps mitigate the impact of wildfires but also transforms lives and empowers communities. This deployment serves as a testament to the effectiveness of the Working on Fire – Kishugu Joint Venture’s expertise in Integrated Fire Management and underscores the importance of international collaboration in addressing the urgent challenges of climate change and global warming.