Heith Johannson

Heith Johannson

Lacombe firefighters making a difference in Paraguay

It used to be that when a home caught fire in Caazapá local volunteers raced to the scene in their pickups and cars. Firefighting equipment was, more often than not, tools grabbed from mechanic shops; and respirators and fire-proof clothing were just a dream.

It used to be that when a home caught fire in Caazapá local volunteers raced to the scene in their pickups and cars.

Firefighting equipment was, more often than not, tools grabbed from mechanic shops; and respirators and fire-proof clothing were just a dream.

That changed when volunteers with the Lacombe Firefighters Association chose the community of 24,000 to receive a retired Clive fire engine donated by Lacombe County.

Lacombe firefighter Uwe Kurth was born and raised in Paraguay and became the key to linking both communities and their firefighting volunteers.

He and fellow Lacombe firefighter Heith Johannson went down to Paraguay last summer to train their counterparts on the new truck, hand out a huge amount of donated equipment and tutor them on modern firefighting techniques.

The gratitude showered on the two Canadians was unforgettable, says Kurth.

“It was a real party, basically, when we got there,” he says. “They were very happy to receive us.”

Forget about finding a restaurant for dinner, Kurth and Johannson were invited into local homes for almost every meal.

One local resident marvelled in a website post how Canadians would donate such a gift to a community and people they had never met.

It was that kind of response, and the knowledge that the donations will save lives, that convinced the Lacombe firefighters to keep their charitable efforts rolling.

When a second truck came due for retirement from Mirror, the association asked Lacombe County to once again donate a truck, which county council gladly did.

This will go to Artigas, a community about 100 km further down the highway from Caazapá.

Artigas’s fire department was only formed five years ago and now has about 10 active members. Their only equipment is a small ambulance.

Kurth said the goal is to train them like their Caazapá colleagues so both fire departments can work together while responding to the dozens of calls a year on the highway between the communities that is currently being paved.

“We’re trying to create a culture in the area so they are pretty much working in the same (firefighting) language basically,” he says.

Local enthusiasm for the previous donation and training meant 14 applications came in from the area around Caazapá for the second donation effort.

“It was a pretty tough process to try to pick because everyone has needs. We had to try to figure out which one needed it the most.”

Artigas was chosen because its fire department had nothing in the way of equipment.

Lacombe Firefighters Association is aiming to raise about $10,000 for the project, as well as taking donations from anyone who has surplus equipment and gear. Artigas is raising around $13,000 to pay to ship the fire truck to South America, where it can be off-loaded and driven or transported by truck to its new home.

Once again, Lacombe firefighters are expected to travel to Paraguay to train the local firefighters on the truck and modern extrication and firefighting techniques, including the always critical skill of ensuring there is water available in an area where fire hydrants are rare.

Kurth said the Caazapá firefighters were enthusiastic students.

“They are really eager to learn and apply everything. They get basic training but nothing compared to the level of training we have here.

“Pretty much every single minute we were there we were training them,” he says, adding typical days started at 7 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m.

The intensive schedule was needed because they were trying to condense a year’s worth of training into a week.

“We tried to cover as much as we could and (meet) their expectations as well. We were really happy with the outcome of the training.”

When the truck leaves for Paraguay depends on fundraising there. It’s hoped it can be on its way in the late spring.

Up to four Lacombe firefighters are expected to head down to help with training. Last year, the plan was to send four but by the time the trip was organized only two could free up the time off work.

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com