South African firefighters leaving Canada blaze after pay dispute

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - A team of South African firefighters dispatched to Canada to fight a massive wildfire in the oil sands region is heading home after a pay dispute, South African officials said on Thursday.

A group of South African firefighters work to uproot a tree as they remove hot spots from a massive wildfire outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada June 2, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin/File Photo

The 301 firefighters arrived in northern Alberta less than two weeks ago to help quell the blaze near Fort McMurray, which forced the evacuation of 90,000 people, destroyed part of the city and shuttered more than a million barrels per day of oil sands production.

But on Thursday, Working on Fire, a South African government-funded organization that trains firefighters, said a senior management team was on its way to Alberta assist with their demobilization and return home.

At issue is how much pay the firefighters should receive for their work in Canada.

During their deployment, Canadian authorities agreed to cover accommodation and meals, while each fire fighter would also receive a daily stipend of C$15 ($11.80) for discretionary purchases, according to Working on Fire.

In addition, after their return home, each firefighter would receive an “out of country daily allowance” to the Rand value equivalent of C$35 per day. They were also to receive the regular wage they earn at home.

However, local media reports about salary increases for personnel deployed to Canada caused confusion among the firefighters, prompting them to strike on Wednesday, Work on Fire said in a statement.

“We wish to categorically state that the quoted amount of $21 per hour is incorrect and was never agreed to with anyone,” Working on Fire said, referring to the media reports. It added in a statement that each firefighter signed the agreement on pay before coming to Canada.

Mike Long, communication director for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said the sudden departure of the South Africans would not disrupt efforts to battle the wildfire.

“We have nearly 2,000 firefighters on the line currently and the fire is 70 percent contained at the moment so it’s at a point where we are able to manage the need appropriately,” he said.

($1 = C$1.27175)

Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Alan Crosby