A battalion of nearly 350 firefighters from the European Union will soon be on the ground in Quebec to help their Canadian counterparts tackle a devastating and unprecedented wildfire season.
One hundred and nine firefighters from France arrived last Thursday and spent the weekend dousing flames in Quebec, where fires have forced nearly 14,000 people to flee their homes.
Another 140 reinforcements from Portugal and 97 from Spain are due to arrive in Quebec City on Wednesday, said Claire Kowalewski, the European Union Emergency Response Coordination Centre’s liaison officer in Canada.
It’s the first time in the centre’s 22-year history that it has sent firefighters to help in Canada, Kowalewski said.
“There is this solidarity,” she said. “Today, unfortunately, it’s Canada that is facing these terrible fires. But last year in Spain, it was also a terrible year.”
The firefighters understand each other, even if they don’t speak the same languages or even use the same techniques, Kowalewski said, adding: “In the end, they have the same objectives.”
Canadian officials have described the destruction from this year’s wildfire season as “unprecedented.” Nearly 430 forest fires roared across the country on Sunday, 210 of which were burning out of control, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre.
Evacuations have been widespread, with more than 100,000 people in nine provinces and territories forced to leave their homes as quickly spreading flames approached.
Officials say the warm, dry conditions driving the fires are expected to prevail in nearly every province and territory through the summer.
Kowalewski is a fire officer in France, and she was seconded to work with the E.U.’s emergency coordination centre. She’s temporarily based at the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre in Winnipeg, where she is overseeing all of the logistics for the European firefighters. There are officers there from other countries that have pitched in to help, including Costa Rica and South Africa, she said.
Canada made an official request for help last Wednesday, triggering the E.U. Civil Protection Mechanism, she said. That call for help went out to 36 different member jurisdictions. In response, the firefighters from France, Portugal and Spain all volunteered to help.
The forest fire season has not begun in their countries and the firefighters saw a window of opportunity to help out across the Atlantic, said Kowalewski.
“They are really proud to come here,” she said. They’ll stay until they aren’t needed anymore, or until they’re needed back in Europe.
She said so far, she and all of the French fire crews have felt welcome. “The firefighters are saying relations with their Canadian colleagues are very good and really, everything is going well,” she said.
On Sunday, that sentiment was shared by authorities in Quebec. Maïté Blanchette Vézina, the province’s natural resources minister, told reporters that firefighters had begun to attack a fire threatening the Atikamekw community of Obedjiwan, rather than just respond to it. That was thanks to help of fire crews from other jurisdictions, including the team from France, she said.
Kowalewski was pleased to hear it. “I hope that the Portuguese and Spanish will also bring a lot of support,” she said.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 12, 2023.