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International firefighters battle massive wildfires in Canada

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Montreal –

Hunter Sousa, 18, of Maine, celebrated his high school graduation by jumping in a truck and driving to Nova Scotia to fight the largest wildfire in the county’s history.

Sousa works for the Maine Forest Service as a firefighter on call, but has never been in a fire before. The call came from his boss on Thursday.

“They said they’d meet in Bangor on Friday night, and I graduated Friday night, so I drove out to Bangor and met up with the rest of the team, and then we drove to Nova Scotia,” he said in a recent interview.

Souza is one of many foreign firefighters called in as Canada is going through its worst wildfire season in recent memory. They came from 10 different countries on five continents, and battled fire, fatigue, and mosquitoes for periods of 14 or more consecutive days under unknown conditions.

In Souza’s case, his main task in the Lake Barrington fire in southwest Nova Scotia was to map the extent of the fire by walking around the edge of the burning area — labeled “black” — and marking the perimeter in the app on his phone, as well as occasionally choking hot spots.

For some other firefighters, their journey to Canada ends on the sight of hell the likes of which they have never seen before.

Eric Flores, the leader of a team of more than 100 French firefighters dispatched to Quebec, says the fires are much bigger — and more difficult — than he usually sees back home.

Flores was sent to the Morrissey region of Quebec, in an area close to a First Nations village that could only be reached by helicopter. In a recent phone interview, Flores said that although the area is wet and swampy, the fire is spreading through root systems underground and even underwater.

“Despite the fact that our feet are in the water, it’s burning,” he said.

Flores and his team are tasked with saving the northern village of Atikameco in Ubidguan from a 150 square kilometer fire that is out of control. He said firefighters focused on erecting the southern line near the village with fire barriers, pipes and pits of smoldering embers before they hit surface vegetation.

“Because there are huge trees, the fire takes on unimaginable views very quickly because as soon as the fire starts to come out of the ground, it attacks the trees, it goes up and you have trees 30 and 40 meters high, and very big fires break out very, very quickly.

By Wednesday night, he said, firefighters had managed to hold back the flames from the community. But they have been less successful in keeping the “large numbers” of flies and mosquitoes at bay, which he describes as their biggest challenge.

“Sometimes they are eaten alive.”

As of Thursday, 1,477 foreign firefighters have been deployed to Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta through the Canadian Interagency Wildfire Centre, the group said in an email. This number includes firefighters from Mexico, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Costa Rica, Spain and the United States.

One of the largest teams consists of 400 South Africans, who are posted in Alberta and work 14 consecutive days, followed by four days off.

Vincent Lobisi, the leader of the strike team, said South Africans must learn how to fight fires in a country with different vegetation and climates.

In Edson, Alta., where he works, he said the focus has been on securing the perimeter of the fire and slowly working inward.

“In South Africa, they fight the flames more directly,” he said.

The group includes coordinators like Antoinette Jenny, who help organize teams on the field, making sure tasks are understood and the correct information is conveyed.

While the South Africans are there to help, she says their experience in Canada is mutually beneficial because it has allowed them to learn about North American resources and technologies, such as those used in fire mapping.

“We built the relationship and learned a lot while sharing and collaborating,” she said in a recent interview.

While the firefighters work hard, everyone says they also enjoyed the experience. Souza appreciated the beauty of Nova Scotia and the support of the people, while Lopesi said he appreciated the cooperation with his foreign colleagues.

Flores said the French teams planned on Wednesday evening to find time to celebrate France’s Fête de la Musique with a small party and beer. The party will end early, he said, noting that the firefighters must get up at 5 am the next morning for another long day in the Quebec woods.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 23, 2023.

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