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An Old War Horse Will Fight Fires for Another Country

Times Staff Writer

Next month, a contingent of Huntington Beach firefighters will journey to Guatemala to deliver gifts of immeasurable value in the poor and war-torn Central American country.

The Seventh Volunteer Fire Brigade in Puerto Barrios will receive a 23-year-old fire engine, an outmoded radio communications system, an electric generator and other firefighting equipment that will help the Guatemalan firefighters to save lives and property.

“Right now, they are working with three regular trucks that have pumps mounted on them, and they communicate with (citizen’s band radios),” said Capt. Dennis Groat, a deputy fire marshal with the Huntington Beach Fire Department.

The project to donate the old Huntington Beach equipment grew out of the Bombero Program, sponsored by the California Fire Chief’s Assn., which provides training to firefighters in Mexico and Central America. The Puerto Barrios firefighters were in Orange County in 1986 when the program held one of its periodic training seminars here.

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“We were talking to Maj. Otto Mendez (of Puerto Barrios), and he told us that the federal government there can’t provide them with any equipment and that they have to raise money themselves,” Groat said.

“We asked him what they needed most, and he said a fire engine--that if we could get them one, they could get it down there.”

Since June, Groat said, about two dozen firefighters and officers from his department have been working to refurbish the aging fire engine and to get the other equipment ready for the trip.

On Jan. 16, the fire engine and gear will be loaded onto an ocean freighter owned by the California Maritime Academy and will reach the Pacific coast of Guatemala about five days later. A dozen or so Huntington Beach firefighters will fly to Puerto San Jose, Guatemala, to meet the cargo, then drive to Guatemala City, where an official reception is planned.

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They then will drive the fire engine 165 miles across the country to the Gulf of Mexico and the coastal town of Puerto Barrios, where they will train local volunteer firefighters to use their new engine and other equipment.

“What we want to do is put a Huntington Beach insignia on the side of the rig with their own insignia underneath,” said Jim Holman, an engineer with the Huntington Beach Fire Department. “Once the training is over, we’ll pull off our insignia, and the rig will belong to them.”

The Huntington Beach fire personnel are paying their own air fares to Guatemala and will stay about two weeks on their own time, Groat said.

Engine No. 45, bought new by Huntington Beach in 1964, was rusty, nearly paintless and in poor mechanical condition when the city recently declared it surplus.

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Huntington Beach firefighters donated their labor to overhaul and refurbish the vehicle. In addition to the generator and radio equipment, the firefighters gathered old firefighting gear, such as hoses, pike poles, which are used to pull down burning ceilings, and protective outerwear.

Holman said he and others have taken parts of the engine home, working on them up to six hours a day, five days a week most weeks, largely because it was fun and “good to see the engine put to use.”

Others were also generous: The city provided a stall where the engine could be painted; the Body Palace, a local body and paint shop, donated materials and advice; the Maritime Academy is donating sea transportation, and port officials in Long Beach are donating dock space for the ship.

Longshoremen will donate their labor to load the cargo, a ship’s pilot will steer the ship into the harbor for free and a tugboat operator has donated its services. Pallets on which the gear will be packed were donated by Stevedoring Services of America.

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The engine, the centerpiece of the project, has been meticulously sanded, primed and repainted its original glossy red. Its chrome fixtures, many parts of which were missing, have been restored. The engine, with more than 80,000 miles, is long outdated by U.S. standards but not by Puerto Barrios’.

Fire Capt. Vic Subia, a 25-year firefighting veteran who headed the project, has traveled twice to the town of 46,000 residents as part of the Bomberos program.

The Puerto Barrios brigade, he said, has 40 volunteers and five paid workers. To raise money for equipment, he said, the brigade holds dances, raffles and food sales. The trucks they use as pumpers are 24-30 years old.

“I think our engine is going to give them years of good service,” Subia said.

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