San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Bureaucracy Dampens Hopes of Residents in Major Tourist Towns Far from Fire Stations

WHEN a storeroom caught fire lastmonth at the Hotel Cala Luna inTamarindo, a popular tourist town on thenorthern Pacific coast, neighbors andemployees quickly grabbed hoses andformed an old-fashioned bucket brigade,dousing the blaze with water and sand.They battled the blaze for an hour anda half before successfully extinguishing it.Thanks to their efforts, the fire did notspread to the rest of the property or adjacentbuildings.A fire truck showed up in time to seeonly the smoldering wreckage, just as theflames were put out, said Griet Depypere,owner of the hotel.From the northern Pacific to the north-centralregion to the southern Caribbeancoast, in less than a year, three majortourist towns have seen fires rageunchecked while fire trucks made theirway to the scene from distant fire stations– arriving too late to do any good.Community leaders who have beenworking to get stations built in theirtowns say they have encountered nothingbut obstacles.IN the case of Tamarindo – arguablyone of the largest and most rapidly growingtourist towns in Costa Rica – the nearestfire station is located approximately 40kilometers away in Filadelfia. On the dayof the Cala Luna fire, once the truck hadmade it to Tamarindo, it got blocked intraffic in the center of the city, delaying itsarrival to the hotel even more.Depypere estimated damages at about$300,000. Shortly after and in partbecause of the occurrence, a communityorganization and the government came toan agreement to build a new access roadto Tamarindo that residents had beenrequesting for more than a year. The roadis expected to make emergency access tothe town easier.Other communities touched by firehave not met with such success.IN the Northern Zone region of LaFortuna de San Carlos, at the foot of theactive Arenal Volcano, a Megasúper grocerystore burned to the ground in April, withdamages reported at nearly $1.5 million. Ittook firefighters 40 minutes to arrive fromthe nearest fire station in Ciudad Quesada,47 kilometers away (TT, May 6).On the southern Caribbean coast latelast year, a retired U.S. citizen died in ahouse fire in Puerto Viejo. Firefighters,coming from the nearest station in the portcity of Limón, 46 kilometers to north,arrived one hour after neighbors reportedthe blaze (TT, Nov. 5, 2004).Leaders from both these communitiessay they were assured at least a year ago byGermán Serrano, then-director of theNational Insurance Institute, which overseesthe National Firefighters Corps, thatfire stations would soon be built in theirregions.Both communities continue to gowithout.COSTA Rica has a total of 61 fire stations, or one for every 65,838 CostaRicans, according to statistics provided byINS. Whether that’s a lot or a little dependson the comparison.The United States, for example, hadapproximately one station for every 5,630people in 2003, according to the U.S. FireAdministration.Nicaragua, on the other hand, has only32 fire stations, about one for every170,784 inhabitants, according to SalvadorGallo, the director of Fire Prevention forNicaragua.To get a fire station in Costa Rica, INSrequires that the community donate a pieceof property of at least 1,000 square metersto the institution.This can be difficult in towns whereevery lot is a potential new investment fortourist infrastructure and land values arecontinuously rising. If the land belongs tothe municipality, the handover requiresapproval by the Legislative Assembly. INSalso reserves the right to reject the land ifit does not meet several requirements, suchas proximity and ease of access.EVEN if an ideal property is securedand donated, this does not guarantee a communitywill soon see a fire station built. Thisis a lesson La Fortuna learned, and one thathas some local officials furious.Francisco Vargas, president of the LaFortuna Tourism Chamber, explained thatthe community donated a 2,500-squaremeterproperty, which he valued at$300,000, to INS a year earlier, with theunderstanding that it would be used tobuild a community fire station.“We signed (the paperwork for) thedonation in the presence of various witnesses,including two lawyers,” Vargas said.Then, according to Vargas, a fewmonths before the Megasúper fire, the newINS director, Luis Javier Guier, informedhim that the institution would not be buildinga fire station anytime soon because LaFortuna has too few fires annually.DORA Hidalgo, who heads the LaFortuna Health Association, which donatedthe land, was also in the meeting withGuier and expressed frustration with thesituation.“La Fortuna is the second most-visitedplace in Costa Rica after the beaches.Eighty percent of tourists who come toCosta Rica come to La Fortuna,” Hidalgosaid. “If they aren’t going to build us a firestation, at least give us back the land.”Both Vargas and Hidalgo explained thatsince they were told their community wouldnot be getting a fire station, they have beentrying, unsuccessfully, to recuperate the land.In an interview with The Tico Timesshortly after the Megasúper burneddown, Hector Chávez, general director ofthe National Firefighters Corps, said INSis planning to build a fire station in LaFortuna. Both Vargas and Hidalgo saidthey have yet to hear anything about this,however.ASKED to clarify, Chávez’s officelater said INS would build stations thisyear in towns of Tilarán and Cañas, in thenorthwestern province of Guanacaste,and Bataán, on the Caribbean slope.Curridabat, east of San José, and ElRoble de Puntarenas, on the centralPacific coast, would get fire stations thefollowing year, according to a statementfrom his office.Afire station in La Fortuna, according tothe statement, is being considered for thefuture.“It is of importance that the constructionof the station be carried out,” the statementsaid, but no timeframe was provided.INS said the process of building a firestation after it is approved takes approximatelytwo years.Whether La Fortuna and other communitieswill wait, or if they can affordto, remains to be seen. In La Fortuna, 10volunteers have already formed a volunteerfire department, Vargas said, but theyhave only a small water pump and twohoses, and are currently looking for adonation of uniforms. He added that heand community leaders have begun tothink about looking in the United Statesfor a used fire truck.In the Tamarindo area, the HotelParadisus Playa Conchal is looking intobuilding its own fire station, “but there isstill nothing concrete,” according to astatement from the hotel.

Comments are closed.