By Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Almost 700 firefighters from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the United States are set to arrive in Canada over the next two weeks to help with the unusually severe start to the wildfire season.
There are already more than 500 international firefighters, incident commanders and other workers in Alberta, and another 101 arrived from the U.S. Friday. Alberta has been battling multiple severe fires since early May and there are still 63 fires burning, 18 of them out of control.
The Canada Interagency Forest Fire Centre reported that as of Friday afternoon there were 324 fires burning across the country, and 167 are considered out of control. That includes the Tantallon fire in Halifax that has destroyed or damaged 151 homes so far.
That’s a big jump from Thursday, when the agency reported 209 fires, with 87 out of control.
Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said Friday that cooler weather is expected in Western Canada and rain in Nova Scotia, which will help. But the severe fire warnings are likely to continue in most provinces for another four to five weeks at least.
“The situation remains severe across the country,” Blair said. “We are hopeful that the improving weather conditions and that rain will assist in the firefighting efforts, but there’s still a great deal of work that needs to be done.”
More than 27,000 square kilometres of land has burned in Canada over the last two months, more than 10 times the average amount of land burned by fires over the last decade.
Thus far, more than 96 per cent of the burned land was in Western Canada and Northwest Territories, but last weekend the situation became more severe in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and now parts of Ontario and Quebec are also burning.
“There are a number of very significant — over 100 wildfires — that have now popped up in Quebec and some of them are out of control and quite serious,” said Blair.
The Canada Interagency Forest Fire Centre database added 113 fires in Quebec since Thursday, and 76 of them are classified as being out of control.
The Canadian Armed Forces deployed several hundred troops to Alberta to help in May and is training more to help in Nova Scotia now, said Blair. The military and the Canadian Coast Guard is also helping with equipment, he said.
The number of fires, their size and severity, as well as the number of places affected are straining Canada’s resources, so the Canada Interagency Forest Fire Centre has requested help from international partners.
Since the season began, 443 firefighters and other workers from Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. have flown to Canada to help, mostly in Alberta. Some have gone to Northwest Territories and a small number so far have landed in Nova Scotia.
Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. are all sending more firefighters in the coming days, Blair said. Most are again heading to Alberta, but some will fly to Nova Scotia.
As well, six water bombers from Montana are expected to arrive in Nova Scotia to help on Friday and Saturday, after getting clearance to use the airstrip at Canadian Armed Forces Base Greenwood.
“I would like to offer my deepest thanks to all of the firefighters, emergency management professionals, who have left their communities and in some cases, their country, to support our efforts here in Canada,” he said. “We are grateful for their work and their dedication.”
The South African High Commission in Ottawa said Friday 200 firefighters and 15 managers would leave South Africa Saturday, and they are heading to Alberta for 35 days. Another 200 firefighters and 13 managers are set to follow on June 10.
South Africa’s Environment Minister Barbara Creecy said it’s the fifth time the two countries have shared firefighting personnel.
“We are proud of the fact that South Africa is again able to assist Canadian firefighting teams in their battle to bring the wildfires under control,” she said in a statement. “The extensive experience and training of these firefighters will significantly enhance efforts to effectively suppress and manage the wildfires in Alberta.”
South Africa’s aid hasn’t been without controversy in the past. In 2016, 300 firefighters flew to Fort McMurray to help with the major blaze that forced the evacuation of the city, but a month-long deployment lasted less than two weeks in a dispute over pay.
Foreign firefighters get stipends and additional pay when battling fires in foreign jurisdictions, and the South African firefighters complained their pay in Alberta was less than what Canadians were getting.
Blair said pay will be sorted out properly this time.
“We will make sure that they are properly supported in the work that they’re doing on our behalf,” he said.