'No borders when it comes to fire': Book explores 100 years of firefighting in Tijuana and beyond

Marinee Zavala focuses on the unique cross-border collaboration and relationship between Tijuana and San Diego-area firefighters

Wendy Fry
The San Diego Union-Tribune

TIJUANA, Mexico — Most Tijuanenses recognize her as their local TV reporter hell-bound on bringing this immense and sometimes chaotic border city the most important news of the day, but Telemundo 20's Marinee Zavala can now add published author to her list of accomplishments.

She and other local reporters collaborated on a book commemorating the first 100 years of the Tijuana Fire Department. Zavala's part focused on the unique cross-border collaboration and relationship she's seen grow over the years between Tijuana and San Diego-area firefighters.

Zavala and other local reporters collaborated on a book commemorating the first 100 years of the Tijuana Fire Department.
Zavala and other local reporters collaborated on a book commemorating the first 100 years of the Tijuana Fire Department. (Photo/Alejandro Tamayo)

Zavala, who has worked as a reporter on both sides of the border, said she's seen first-hand how massive wildfires don't respect walls or international borders.

"We see this steel wall behind us that really only serves to stop people," she said during a recent interview in front of the border structure at Playas de Tijuana. "But when we talk about fire, when we talk about air, when we talk about pollution, it's invisible. There really are no borders when it comes to fire."

Zavala said that during the years she was working on the U.S. side, she was surprised to see firefighters from around Baja California in San Diego on cross-border partnerships.

"Now I have been here in Tijuana for four years. You will see firefighters coming from San Diego to train here and see them planning for how they will try to coordinate during an emergency," she said.

The book, "El recuento de los pasos, or "Recounting the steps," includes interviews with firefighters recalling a few scary moments on the border — not just fighting fires but also trying to rescue migrants who often get swept away in storm drains that run underneath the border infrastructure. Those rescue efforts can become complicated and dangerous multi-agency, international incidents.

Zavala said one challenge she had researching the book was finding exact data about fires and other incidents she knew she had covered as a reporter. She said she knew firefighters had crossed the border to fight the flames because she had been there to see it, but often she couldn't find the effort documented officially.

Because San Diego has a number of different agencies active in the border region, including the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, Cal Fire and the Chula Vista Fire Department, getting exact figures on the number of fires near the border can be tricky.

"I could not find that data, so I think that it is simply that no one records it or keeps count of how often firefighters cross the border. But it should not be taken for granted that the firefighters from here have to go there, and that the firefighters from there have to come here," said Zavala.

Cal Fire Capt. Thomas Shoots said the relationship with firefighters on Mexico's side is a very positive one.

He recalled at times handing off radios so firefighters on Mexico's side could communicate better across the border. "We're really lucky to have what we have in San Diego, and our counterparts on the other side aren't always as fortunate," Shoots said. Despite the differences in resources though, "they get the job done," he said.

The president of the Tijuana Firefighters Association, Xavier Peniche Bustamante, said the work carried out by the Tijuana firefighters over the past 100 years is worthy of recognition in a book, since they risk their lives every day for the citizens of the border region. He called the book "a dream come true thanks to the work of a team committed to presenting a copy that tells an unparalleled story." Local reporters Yolanda Morales, Claudia Orozco and Lourdes Loza Romero also worked on the project.

Morales, an Imagen TV correspondent who also writes for the San Diego Union Tribune en Español, interviewed for the book Giovanna Raggio, a widow of a Tijuana firefighter who died recently.

"I had a very sad case, but it also filled me with strength," said Morales. "We were working with her family to pay tribute to him. They are lifesavers. They save people's lives."

Rafael Carrillo, the director of the Tijuana Fire Department, leads a team of 430 firefighters that battle blazes in an ever-growing and constantly expanding city. The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, by comparison, has about 960 firefighters.

"I am happy to see this project and this dream materialized in this book. Thanks to those journalists of international stature who contributed their gift and gave away one of their virtues by writing this book for the Tijuana firefighters," he said.

Carrillo said proceeds from sales of the book — which costs $75 apiece — will go toward meeting various needs of the Tijuana Fire Department, especially equipment. Carrillo mentioned the department has high-quality equipment, but still has unmet needs, such as ladders tall enough to reach some of the larger towers built in Tijuana in recent years.

One advantage Tijuana firefighters have, Carrillo and others said, is that construction material in Tijuana is often less combustible — with many homes built of stone instead of wood — so fires don't rip through neighborhoods in the same way they do on the U.S.-side of the border.

Zavala says the topic of fires that cross borders fascinates her, and she hopes to write about the topic more in the future.

"To see the impact of a fire so far away in the United States and for it to reach Mexico and for people from the United States to have to take refuge in Tijuana ... I think that is impressive and it is something that people have to know and it has to be told," she said.

©2022 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Visit sandiegouniontribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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