South African firefighters arrive in Fort McMurray

281 people make the long trip to help stop the blaze
South African firefighters before boarding Air Canada plane to Fort McMurray, Alberta South African firefighters hold their flag in front of an Air Canada plane just before leaving Johannesburg for Edmonton. (Courtesy of Air Canada)

For the entire month of May, the forest fires near Fort McMurray, Alberta have been growing and burning. Today, the fires cover around 580,000 hectares (2,230 square miles). That's an area over nine times the size of Toronto and bigger than the entire province of Prince Edward Island.

Since burning through Fort McMurray, the fire has threatened numerous other towns and the surrounding oil fields. Already about 2,300 firefighters from all over Canada and the United Staes are working to contain the fire and protect these places from harm. And now they're getting 281 more helpers from a very unlikely place: South Africa.

Arrived from Johannesburg Sunday evening

South African firefighters on board the plane taking them to Canada. (Courtesy of Air Canada)

Johannesburg, the capital of South Africa, is almost 16,000 kilometres (10,000 miles) away from Edmonton, Alberta. But these firefighters felt the need to lend a hand. Many of them had been trained through a program called "Working On Fire", which was put together ten years ago to give unemployed South Africans a job. Now after a 10-day boot camp (that's a quick, intense training session), these brave firefighters from halfway around the world are ready to meet the blaze. It's the largest foreign non-military mission in South African history.

This fire is much larger and more powerful than anything these South Africans have witnessed back home. But Canadian officials know that they're going to be ready to help right away. In addition to the boot camp, Canadian firefighters have traveled to South Africa before to help train their forces.

"We know that their training matches our training and we've gone and given them training in the past," said Alberta's fire information officer, Travis Fairweather. "We know when they get here they can just get off the plane and get right to work."

Full of song

Besides adding more bodies to an exhausted work force, the South African reinforcements bring an amazing spirit. Right after arriving, they were seen singing and dancing. For many of these firefighters, this will be the first time they've worked together (they came from different regions all over South Africa). Part of the way they bond and get to know each other is by singing. Songs can't extinguish flames, but it does bring courage and energy to carry on.

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