Calif. firefighters embark on mission to train Honduras fire crews
Five Marin firefighters will be working with Firefighters Without Borders California, an organization of professional firefighters and EMS personnel who work to improve global fire operations
The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.
MARIN, Calif. — Traveling to help improve the lives of people in rural Latin America has become a family affair for husband and wife Oscar and Tara Arenas of Fairfax.
For a second year, Oscar, a firefighter, and Tara, a teacher, will join Firefighters Without Borders California, who travel on their own dime for a weeklong mission in Central America. This time, they are headed to Copan Ruinas, a town in the mountains of western Honduras near the Guatemala border.
“As a Latino born in Guadalajara, Mexico, this is a natural fit,” said Oscar, a 46-year-old fire captain with the Ross Valley Fire Department.
Oscar is among five Marin firefighters tasked with providing tools and training to fire crews in the area.
“I’ve seen poverty, and it’s nice to give back to a third world country that needs the help,” he said.
Firefighters Without Borders California is made of professional firefighters and emergency medical personnel who work with fire departments globally to improve their operations. The nonprofit is not affiliated with the Canadian-based Firefighters Without Borders, which has a similar mission.
San Rafael firefighter-paramedic Angel Landaverde founded the California nonprofit in 2008, introducing the program to the San Rafael Fire Department when he joined the crew seven years ago.
When Oscar signed up for the trip last year to Guatemala, the organization invited his wife Tara, a 25-year educator to serve as a guest teacher at a local elementary school and to coach educators there on modern teaching techniques. Their daughter Maggie, now 6, tagged along to attend the kindergarten classes there. She will do the same this year.
During the Guatemalan trip, Tara said local educators reported that about 60 percent of students in the rural elementary schools in the area do not pass fifth grade.
“I don’t go to be a tourist, I want to help people there, and the best way to offer help is to actually be there,” said Tara, who works in special education at the Ross Valley School District and also works on college access programs for youth from the Canal in San Rafael. “Education is the key component to rebuilding a community.”
Through crowdsource fundraising, Tara was able to raise more than $2,000 to ship school supplies and snacks to Escuela Urbana Mixta Juan Ramon Cueva, which serves about 765 students. Tara said Maggie’s kindergarten class will also be sending letters to the Honduras class and hopes they will remain pen pals sharing stories about their lives in their countries.
Firefighters Without Borders California also rely heavily on donations and fundraising to ship equipment to the countries they are helping.
Collecting donated equipment from Marin fire departments, the organization has shipped nearly $50,000 worth of gear to the Honduras fire departments, Landaverde said. He was able to raise about $1,000 to ship the gear, but a lot of the cost is paid out of pocket, putting the volunteer back a “couple thousand” with each shipment, he said.
For the first time, the Honduras crews will be able to use and keep the self-contained breathing apparatus, the mask firefighters wear when they go inside a building to fight a fire.
“They’re excited about that,” Landaverde said, noting that the Marin crew is also training them on wildland fire response with a live, controlled burn.
In the Guatemalan city of Villa Nueva, one fire station San Rafael firefighters previously helped is now considered a national model, Landaverde said. The city has three fire stations serving a population of more than 1 million people, and before three years ago, the stations did not have any fire engines.
Mostly young men, under age 20, volunteer to work for the fire stations. The men receive no training and few have protective equipment. Those who do have protective gear often had it handed down from their father or other relative.
“I love getting the updates from the crews we’ve helped in the past, getting pictures and phone calls from firefighters saying, ‘Look at what I learned from you: I was able to save someone’s life or someone’s house or save the town,'” Landaverde said. “That means whatever we’re doing, it’s working.”
©2019 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)