San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What it’s like to fight a wildland forest fire

How does a country like Costa Rica cope with a major forest fire? This past summer, November to April saw very little rain, and that left the land very dry. Thirty-three forest fires were reported this year, with major ones occuring in Chirripó, the Tapantí reserve (near Buenos Aires in the southern zone)and in Guanacaste, where a major fire took days to extinguish, exhausted firefighters and destroyed up to 500 hectars of land.

“This year the fires were stronger,” said Rodrigo Leandro at the central fire station in San José. “There are cycles when the environment is more susceptible. Climatic conditions, dryness and negligence create fires.”

In Costa Rica, there are firefighters trained especially to fight forest fires, but this year an Internet call went out asking all fire stations for volunteers.

Diego León, 33, of Atenas in the western province of Alajuela, signed up that day at the central fire station in San José, where he boarded a bus along with 35 other volunteers for Buenos Aires. After an orientation at the central fire station, and one last good night’s sleep, the firemen prepared for the adventure of their lives.

They were issued fire-retardant uniforms, helmets, shoes, sleeping bags, flashlights, tools and canned food, then air-lifted to the fire zone by helicopter. The helicopter couldn’t land, so they had to jump from several meters in the air. One man broke his hand when he landed, and had to be evacuated. Another had eye trouble from the dust kicked up the helicopter, León said.

The brigade lived in the fire area, building a firebreak two meters wide and 400 meters long. The men spent five days in the area, working from 4:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., cutting anything that grew so the fire wouldn’t jump. “We worked close to the fire area and it was very hot,” León said.

In the evening, the men cleared an area for eating and sleeping. The helicopter tossed them canned rice and beans, meat and bread. A nighttime chill set in, and they slept close together in sleeping bags. The only animals they saw were poisonous fer-de-lance snakes, which they killed.

With each day, faces burned. The dust and ashes hurt the men’s eyes and their shoes began to wear out. They had no cell phones or radios to contact the outside world, nor were there soap or razors or clean clothes. Long days of physical activity made muscles sore.

Firefighters were not alone. Police, the Red Cross, the Transport and Environment Ministries (MOPT, MINAET), the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and the National Emergency Commission (CNE) all worked together. Helicopters from Colombia, Panama and the United States provided transport and sprayed water on the fire. Radio and TV stations asked area people to bring food and other comforts to the central fire station for those working in the fire area.

After five days, when the fires were under control, León and his brigade were able to leave. But the helicopter had problems and couldn’t come to get them. They had to walk four hours to an area where they could find transport to the central fire station. “We had to carry all our gear, sleeping bags, tools. Our shoes wore out. We were worn out.”

After a day to rest and get cleaned up, the men were bussed back home to the Central Valley. For León, it meant seeing his wife and daughter after a week’s absence, having a bath and eating a normal meal.

For him and the others, it was an unforgettable experience. “I was happy to have collaborated in a major effort, and to have helped out,” León said.

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