The first thing the 281 South African firefighters did when they touched down in Edmonton was sing.

They sang soldier songs — songs of South Africa — while the large crowd gathered there to welcome them cheered.

Khomt Alucie, one of the firefighters who made the journey, said the group has only known each other for a day and singing is how they bond.

“It gives us moral courage, it gives us teamwork,” she said. “If we become tired in the fire we sing.

“It’s not something you practice, it’s in the soul.”

A man who worked in Anzac, a town once evacuated by the fire, personally thanked each one as they walked through the arrival gates.

“Welcome to Canada, thank you so much,” he said, in his other hand he held a Canadian flag tied to a hockey stick.

Alberta’s fire information officer Travis Fairweather said earlier the firefighters represented many regions of South Africa.

“They do that to make sure they maintain even balance so they don’t take too many out of one area and leave them too depleted on resources,” said Fairweather.

The officers are in Alberta for a standard deployment of 14 days, with the possibility of an extension.

Canada is part of a program with several other countries run by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC).

CIFFC co-ordinates requests for assistance from provinces that have exceeded their internal firefighting capacity.

“We know that their training matches our training and we’ve gone and given them training in the past,” said Fairweather. “We know when they get here they can just get off the plane and get right to work.”

Working On Fire

A large portion of the South African firefighters have come through a program in their country called “Working On Fire.”

The program was implemented over a decade ago and is designed to give young people in that country a job, pulling them out of poverty.

The wildfire that destroyed part of Fort McMurray continues to burn out of control and covers almost 580,000 hectares. The closest the fire is actively burning to the outskirts of the city is just over 25 kilometres away.

Around 2,300 firefighters are currently battling the wildfire. Firefighters have been flown in from across Canada and the U.S.

Firefighting conditions were expected to improve over the weekend due to higher humidity and a potential for rain.