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Adios Unit Crews C139 and C140!

On July 27th, 42 highly skilled firefighters arrived from Mexico to help battle wildfires in yet another brutal BC summer.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Mexican firefighters gather at Penticton Elks Lodge Tuesday evening

For the next seven weeks, they'd work long days in some of the province's hottest hot spots. At night, after each smoky, dirty, dangerous shift, they'd sleep in tents in temporary fire camps, often set up at airports or on sports fields.

Along the way, they were entrusted with duties that are only given to those who can handle the toughest scenarios. Stuff like being part of the all-important "initial attack" crew.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

And that's because these guys and gals are the best of the best. All are experienced, all have proven their calm under pressure, and all have passed the barrage of tests it takes to achieve the rank of "Type 1" wildland firefighter.

They even brought along their own gear.

But now it’s time they head back home. Currently they're undergoing a debriefing in Kamloops. Thursday, they'll fly back to Mexico.

But Tuesday night, they all got together at the Elks Lodge #51 on Ellis Street in Penticton. Why? Turns out the Lodge has been feeding them dinners for the past couple weeks.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> The firefighters enjoy their send-off dinner

So Thursday night was their good-bye. And a pretty good photo op too.

"We were contacted by BC Wildfire to see if we had the capacity to feed upward of 65 people, and this is how it all evolved," said Elks president Laurie Kidd. "They arrived at 7 every evening for the past 16 days and we had a meal prepared for them."

The biggest challenge, added Kidd, was making that meal taste like "home cooking."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> The firefighters enjoy their send-off dinner

"We reached out to members who have Mexican spouses," he said, "and also reached out to people in the Mexican community. We think we did a pretty good job."

For Marco Rokas of Guadalajara, Mexico, the night was bittersweet. He gets to go home, but at the same time he says he'll miss the people of BC.

Rokas, 43, is the AREP (agency representative/leader). He's been fighting wildfires for 23 years and, like several in the group, has come to the aid of Canada in the past. Under him are two crew leaders, one for each of the two 20-person unit crews (unit crew numbers C139 and C140).

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Marco Rokas (second from right) with signed flag

"We're just happy to be here," he said. "And we want to thank everyone so much for their hospitality. And their support. All the friendliness. We are so happy with that."

Lately, Rokas and his compatriots have been dealing with the Upper Park Rill Creek fire near Twin Lakes, the closest "Wildfire of Note" to Penticton all year long.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Scene from Day 1 of Upper Park Rill Creek fire

Before that, it was the Horsethief Creek blaze near Invermere that was discovered in late July.

According to Rokas, whose crews are often transported to the front lines by helicopter, battling wildfires and training in his home country better prepares Mexican firefighters for work in distant places like BC than some might think.

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who>

"Mexico has a lot of biodiversity," he said. "We have rain, we have bushes, we have pine trees. We have many types of vegetation.

"And some of us have been here two or three times already. Not just here but the US too. And Chile. It's international."

In an unfortunate sign of our environmental fragility, the timing also works out well.

"We're fighting fires in Mexico before we come here," said Rokas. "Our fire season starts in March and ends in June. Right now, it’s rainy season, so that's why we can come here to help you guys."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> The firefighters enjoy their send-off dinner

But as much as the Mexican-based unit crews can seemingly handle any situation they face, Rokas laughingly admitted there's one scenario that makes them nervous.

"We're trained for hoses, we're trained for hand tools, were trained for so much," he said. "We talk from ground to air to tell the helicopter where to drop.

"But when we hear the bird dog (the plane that guides the giant air tankers filled with retardant), we go away. We run. The big boys are coming."

<who>Photo Credit: NowMedia/Gord Goble</who> Elks prez Laurie Kidd chats with the group

As our time together ended and Rokas readied to head upstairs with his friends and fellow firefighters for their send-off dinner, he left us with one parting thought. And it’s a good one.

"We live in a big world," he said. "All the firefighters around the world, we work for the same thing.

"Personally I work for my children because I want to keep the world green."

Send your comments, news tips, typos, letter to the editor, photos and videos to [email protected].

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