LA HABRA HEIGHTS — The engine is tired, the paint is faded and the rust shows, but an old La Habra Heights firetruck will soon be the pride of its new home, San Juan del Rio in Mexico. The 25-year-old truck is the latest prize in one man's quest to build a fire department in a small Mexican city that has won his heart.
Gregory L. Garcia, 49, is the fire chief of the La Habra Heights Volunteer Fire Department. He also is the best thing to happen to firefighting in San Juan del Rio, a city of 120,000 about a 90-minute drive north of Mexico City.
Since 1979, he has labored to get San Juan del Rio an ambulance, three firetrucks, firefighting gear and hoses. He became aware of the town while working for the Chino Rural Fire Protection District in the 1970s. At the time, he was asked to work on the engine of a 1951 truck the district was donating to San Juan del Rio, Chino's sister city.
"I got to meet the chief and the mayor and a couple of other guys from the city," Garcia said. "I was invited for the dedication of the engine to the city. They had me give a speech on fire prevention and it snowballed from there."
His first acquisition, in 1979, was a 1957 Ford truck for which Chino had no further need. Garcia found some mechanics to donate repairs. Mexican workers repainted it south of the border. San Juan del Rio named the truck after Garcia.
Last year, Garcia acted as the agent for San Juan del Rio to buy a 1965 Crown truck from Los Angeles County for $2,500. He did the same for a nearby city.
The ambulance came free of charge from the San Bernardino County Fire Department and was refurbished by the city of Chino, he said. The city had been using an old panel truck as an ambulance.
The latest fire engine comes from Garcia's own turf. La Habra Heights has five trucks, including the one about to be given away. Garcia is the only full-time firefighter in the hillside city of 5,500, nestled against the Orange County border. Nineteen paid part-timers work one shift a week. About 70 volunteers also come in once a week, and 30 residents are on call 10 nights a month.
As fire science goes, La Habra Heights is way ahead. Its fire department serves 5,500 residents with more equipment than San Juan del Rio has for 120,000, Garcia said. The Mexican city has only the four old fire engines Garcia helped provide to battle an average of 12 structure fires a month. The fire safety codes are primitive, Garcia said, and there are no fire hydrants. Garcia said there are only five fire departments with paid employees in all of Mexico.
La Habra Heights had only six structure fires last year, the most serious being the one in the mayor's garage last November. The city decided it could part with its least-fit truck, particularly after buying a new $170,000 vehicle last year. The 1965 Ford would have cost about $50,000 to make fully reliable, and even then the cab would be too small to carry the four-man crew the city now uses.
But the 2 1/2-ton, 15-footer should be ideal for the narrow, cobblestone streets of San Juan del Rio, a 400-year-old city with no buildings larger than four stories. The city sits on a 6,000-foot plateau and was once famous for its opal mines.
Two firefighters will come to La Habra Heights to pick up their truck in the coming weeks. It will take them six days to drive it home.
A three-member delegation from San Juan del Rio formally accepted the gift at a recent La Habra Heights City Council meeting.
"Every time the unit goes out on call, it will be a vote for this city's welfare," said visiting Fire Commission President Augustine Martinez.
The truck is "going to need a little work, but it's not that bad," La Habra Heights Mayor John R. Wible said.
Garcia visits San Juan del Rio about once a year. "There are no tourists there to jack up the prices and make it difficult to live with," he said. "After visiting the town, I made a lot of friends. We're basically family, really."
The East Los Angeles native said he and his wife Gloria have fallen in love with the town. And each has more than an outsider's interest in its fire safety.
"There is a method to my madness," he said. "I plan to retire in that town."