I had certain expectations when I started this journey; visualising myself in various environments and the topics I would be investigating. At the forefront were the picturesque Galapagos Islands. The images I’d seen and articles I’d read had painted a picture of a well-funded paradise where the bespoke needs of the precious and unique ecosystem were clearly understood and tended too.
Having seen the devastation wildfires can inflict on an ecosystem during my visit to Cristo Rey in Cali, I fully expected my story would cover the unique measures in place to protect the indigenous creatures of these islands. It was perhaps naive of me to think that there would be some kind of evacuation plan for the Giant Tortoise since their walking speed wasn’t up to much….
What I found instead was a story of total selfless dedication to a cause which left a huge impression on me, creating a desire to support in whatever way I could.
Carlos Daniel Gonzales Cobos was a difficult man to track down. I initially found his name through an online article about some training he had completed in the US. Since my Spanglish is still terrible I hoped this meant the likelihood of him being an English speaker would be fairly high! Carlos had been a volunteer fire fighter on San Cristobal Island since he was 10 years old (yes I know, I will explain that part later!)
Having utilised my sleuth skills to find a contactable address, the delay in Carlos’ response caused me to doubt if this meeting would come to fruition. However, at the eleventh hour he finally made contact and I discovered that the delay was because he spent a significant amount of time off island on a cruise ship. This is his paid job, as a tour guide, and it takes him away for 4 weeks at a time (with a 2 week break between tours). Learning this made his dedication to the brigade all the more impressive. He combines his short time back on the island on-call as a volunteer fire fighter as well as spending family time with his new baby girl.
The chariot awaits!
‘We will pick you up and take you to the station for our meeting’ he informed me, with no warning that this would involve some serious style, as a huge fire truck pulled up outside my hostel. I must admit, the small child in me was VERY happy as the other guests stared wide eyed at my shiny red chariot! Carlos had also brought along his colleague José Pararales who helped explain how fire safety is conducted across the Galapagos.
There are 4 populated islands in the Galapagos – San Cristobal, Santa Cruz and Isabella all have dedicated fire stations whilst Floriana currently does not. They all rely on volunteer fire fighters just like many areas in South America but, due to the low populations, it can be difficult to recruit the necessary numbers.
I was able to speak to the fire chief over Skype, who happened to be Carlos’s father and also called Carlos Gonzales. He explained that the station was originally founded in May 1979 when the San Cristobal Fire Department was established but by 1982 it had more or less disappeared due to a lack of both funding and volunteers. It wasn’t until 1999 when the first fire truck was donated by the government that it sparked the interest of locals to become volunteers. Carlos senior smiled when I asked why he had enlisted as it appeared that the arrival of the huge Mercedes truck played a part in his decision to become first a firefighter and eventually fire chief . I could appreciate this after my non-conventional taxi ride!
The growth in volunteers led to the transformation of the islands’ service. At that time there was no station and the truck was parked outside the Gonzales family home. People had to call the house number in the event of an emergency. 10-year-old Carlos junior would help charge the air brakes and start the engine of the huge truck whilst his father got ready. By the age of 12 he was helping pump water. Bonkers.
They began building the station in 2005 but due to funding issues, construction wasn’t complete until 2009. It was initially a simple office area for admin staff to issue permits but has grown to include sleeping accommodation for fire fighters with a gym, kitchen and storage areas for equipment and vehicles. The bulk of the equipment was donated, even down to bunk beds and mattresses in the dorm rooms. A second fire truck was also donated by France. Their amazing achievement driven by pure passion and care for their home led me to thinking about how it takes a special type of person to dedicate such time and effort for no monetary recompense.
They then described some of the specific difficulties the island faced, such as the hydrant system. Hydrants are connected to the domestic supply and are distributed across the town. However, since water is so scarce it is only available on rotation to certain sections of the network at certain times which means the firefighters had to learn which hydrants would be operational at which time!
Despite promises of schemes to support the fire department through funding and official training, most fail to materialise. The team have taken to using the Galapagos name to encourage outside donations from those offering training which a number of people have willingly done. However, they are still lacking essential basic equipment which significantly restricts their operating capability. Carlos Junior told me about two recent search and rescue missions which sadly left one man dead and one who was never found. He explained that providing a coordinated approach was extremely difficult since their previously donated radios no longer work and the island does not have full cell phone coverage. As cell phones are also used to alert on-call fire fighters calls could be missed if the fire fighter does not view their phone at the right time.
Carlos also told me that search and rescue dogs would be highly beneficial finding missing people – he even tried to train his own dog from a pup but being away for so long with work training has been sporadic and he fears it may be too late for the dog to ever become mission ready. Having seen the rigorous training the K-9 team of Popayan undertake on a daily basis I fear he may be correct.
I asked Carlos and José about the types of fire emergencies that are normally called in. The team receive on average 1-2 calls a day. These range from vehicle accidents to locals burning rubbish/leaves (an illegal practice on the island but one that still occurs). The rocky environment can create a tunnel effect for wild fires to spread underground through the rock formations making extinguishing difficult. Bear in mind that at any one point there are only 2 firefighters on call – so only 2 first responders to deal with any blaze.
There has also been a spate of marine fires which were particularly difficult to deal with as the team have no training in oil spill fires and no specialist equipment.
Local boatmen were asked to support the effort and sand was manually thrown on to the spill. Boat fires are left to burnout and evacuations are often reliant on neighbouring boats responding to distress signals. Floriana has no station and no fire boats are available to reach it.
As Carlos took me to the roof top gym, we looked out over the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. He explained that the town had grown significantly from when he was a boy and that the firefighters all understood the risks were growing with it. Many questions sprang to my mind: Why, when the islands’ ecosystems are so precious is more support not provided? Why were these volunteers left to defend their island, which has unique difficulties to overcome, without the specialist equipment and training they need? Why were the few dedicated volunteers forced to spend significant time away to earn a wage thereby preventing them from focusing on solving these issues?
It was never my intention on this journey to point fingers and impart blame. Ultimately, it’s been fascinating to dissect the similarities between different nations’ regulatory growth. But frustratingly it appears that the common answer to my questions was not that surprising and similar to the challenges faced by fire industries globally:
‘nothing major has happened before…. Why should anything happen now?’
Why do we sit and wait for big disasters to happen before we get the right level of funding for fire prevention and protection purposes? Should a fire occur it could have a significant impact on the ecosystem – perhaps even extinction for certain species. It is an issue for the whole world – the lessons learnt are out there, we shouldn’t have to wait for things to go hideously wrong before the risks are recognised and contingencies put in place!
As one small person I am ill equipped to solve such issues in one hit! But the vital role Carlos and the team carry out is so impressive FireTreks would like to support them in making their mammoth task a little easier. Firstly, obtaining San Cristobal Island a decent set of working radios! As I write this, fingers crossed, it may have already been achieved – updates in a few weeks.
FireTreks also wishes to reach out to fire brigades, trainers or manufacturers/suppliers or any individual able and willing to donate equipment or expertise in defence of the Galapagos. If you can donate even the smallest items you would be making a difference.
It’s also one of the most wonderful places to visit – perhaps you are a trainer and need a holiday? If you could donate a day of your time to these guys to help with specialist training it would be an incredible way to support.
Please let me know if you are able to help by messaging through the contact tab above.