The night we saved Volcan

Fire, fanned by strong winds, rushes to the crown of the hill behind David Dell's house.

You never know when to expect fire.

March 16 2006 started pretty much the same as most days here in the highlands of Chiriqui, Panama. It was warm and sunny with a strong and parching northeast wind.
On the far side of the hill near my home, the relentless drying wind had made the four-foot high grass tinder dry. Sometime after four o’clock that afternoon, a spark from some nearby slash burning ignited the grass.

Blaze in the trees

Sydney Tremayne, website owner and editor, was home when he smelled strong smoke and spotted a blue haze from the far side of a hill. He jumped into his car to investigate. A short distance toward Volcan, in places among the dense trees, he could see flames.

His own home was a half a mile downwind. His luxurious three-bedroom villa is nestled amongst a forest of tall and equally tinder-dry pine trees.

Bomberos fight fire in Volcan hills. Sydney stopped his car in my driveway, raced up the steps to my side door and, with his usual wry wit, asked: ”David, do you have fire insurance?” The blaze, which I knew nothing about at that time because the wind was taking the smoke away, was inching perilously close to my side of the hill, he told me.

Sydney and I did what all true journalists worth their salt would do – we grabbed a camera and rushed off to take pictures.

We traversed the hill to the east side and, from that vantage point, we could see several acres were ablaze. As we watched, the flames engulfed several trees close to the ridgeline separating my side of the hill from the fire. We raced back to my home and I saw that Lydia, my wife, had already packed some of our most important documents – evacuation seemed a distinct possibility.

Translated manual for eductor

Months before this incident, a friend who works with the local fire department had asked me to translate a manual for a new piece of equipment from English to Spanish. The equipment is called an eductor. It is a suction device that, when placed in a stream or river can, by using the fire truck’s pump, deliver unlimited amounts of water to such things as…well…forest fires.

My first thought was to email the makers of the of the eductor, Schutte & Koerting, to ask for a copy of the manual in Spanish. To this day, they have not replied. So I struggled with translation programs and, after a week or so, I delivered a Spanish manual to the grateful firemen.

Exhausted section commander.

Now, I felt Volcan was safe…except that the eductor needed a special adaptor to go between the hose and the fire truck. The fire department didn’t have, and couldn’t afford, the aforementioned adaptor.

I asked the chief to give me the name and price of the adaptor and I would see to it that the gringo community provided it. I didn’t hear from him again until the night of the forest fire.

Back to March 16

A neighbor, Andy Fink, came to my house at dusk and said flames were now visible from our side of the hill. The fire department hadn’t arrived, so Andy and I drove to the station and found the chief waiting outside.

They had managed to get the two aging fire trucks started and they were indeed at the scene. We could clearly see from the fire hall that the blaze had engulfed the ridge, so we headed back home.

A truck was parked at the bottom of the hill and there was much debate about driving it up the rough gravel road to the summit.

Tinder-dry brush proved stubborn. Andy, who is also an honorary Lieutenant in the fire department, was well aware that these museum pieces would never make it to the bottom of the hill let alone the top. He advised the men to load their three-gallon water backpacks and walk to the summit.

Next problem: nobody had a flashlight. But I had a 14lb rechargeable battery that I used for video work, so I volunteered to be the light man.

The walk up the hill in the dark nearly killed me. I realized I was dreadfully out of shape and had to stop several times in the steep climb to get my breath. Not wishing to embarrass the gringo race, I dutifully staggered to the summit and provided light from my 100-watt sun gun for the fearless firefighters.

There were five firefighters and myself on the ridge. The commander constantly yelled out the names of each individual crewmember. One by one, they replied. The ridge has steep crevices – not the place to be out of touch with your comrades.

Water soon ran out

The five water backpacks soon ran out and Luis, the section commander, and I went back down the hill to replenish them. By this time, the station chief had arrived and he volunteered to carry a water pack up to the summit.

On the way, I realized the chief was in worse physical shape than I was. Halfway up, he gasped and dropped the water pack to the ground. Wonderful! I thought: He’s going to have a heart attack and I am going to have to carry him and the 14lb battery down the hill.

Heroically (or stupidly, depending on your point of view), I picked up the vital water pack and headed for the summit. I left the light battery with the chief and he slowly, painfully, made his way behind me.

Flames surround us

At the summit, flames had crossed the ridge and, at one point, had jumped across a path and briefly surrounded us. In documentaries, this is the point where the narrator intones, “Suddenly things went disastrously wrong.” Fortunately, the wind changed direction to the east and blew back down to the area already burned.

It was nine o’clock and we had been fighting the blaze for about three hours. At this point, the moon rose above the Baru Volcano and bathed the area in a beautiful, almost surreal light. With the last flames burning themselves out, we walked back down the hill to the twinkling lights of Volcan.

Even if the eductor had been functional, the streams at this time of year were dry. Without a water source, the technology was useless. In our little mountain town of Volcan, our greatest asset against forest fires is the seasonal rain and the courage of the fearless and underpaid firemen. – David Dell

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