Lt. Dale Heidal, middle row, second from right, sweats it out with his volunteer training class in Brazil. Courtesy Dale Heidal

In November 2018, Key Peninsula native and veteran firefighter Lt. Dale Heidal of the Key Peninsula Fire Department traveled to Brazil to teach a course in fighting wildfires.

Heidal visited the Brazilian town of Ponta de Pedras, making the journey with Texas Fire Chief Paul Fidler and a Russian volunteer. Ponta de Pedras is a town of about 25,000 located in northeastern Brazil, inside the Amazon River delta. Wildfires in the region are common and are combated by a force of volunteers.

The Brazilian firefighters face several challenges due to their location and lack of funding. Many members of the local fire department live in a different town and must travel two hours by boat to reach Ponta de Pedras. Once assembled, firefighters travel to the site of the blaze on motorcycles in pairs or trios. Equipment is limited, although Fidler was able to supply some helmets, pump kits and medical supplies with his department’s discretionary money. One part of Heidal’s role was helping to make basic hand tools. “They rely on donations, and I don’t think they get a lot of them,” he said.

Although Ponta de Pedras is in the heart of a rainforest, jungle fires spring up often and burn fiercely. 

“It’s amazing,” Heidal said. “You would think, ‘it’s the jungle, it’s not going to burn that well,’ but every ecosystem with plant life has what we call litter on the ground floor – that’s dead vegetation like leaves, needles, caps, fruit, and all these things that die and fall to the ground. That stuff burns really well.” He compared the Brazilian jungle to rainforests in Florida, where wildfires are frequent. Some living jungle plants contain incendiary chemicals that allow them to burn despite high humidity.

Regardless of the challenges facing the local department, the firefighting itself was familiar.

“It was pretty much the same way we would do it here, except we would have more equipment and more human resources,” Heidal said. He delivered four days of classroom instruction and one field day of practical training on a variety of topics. “We knew because of the language barrier that we had to really focus on the key elements, and the most key elements are safety, understanding and determining fire behavior,” he said. 

Heidal speaks some Spanish but needed an interpreter to translate the class into the department’s native Portuguese. Despite the language barrier, Heidal’s other travel experiences prepared him well for Brazil. 

“It reminded me of being in the Philippines as far as the climate and the people – really friendly people. We had a lot of fun, I played soccer with them one night and actually scored a few goals.”

This was Heidal’s first international trip volunteering his firefighting knowledge, although he’s traveled around the United States for classes and incident response before. International cooperation between emergency services is common and crews often come from all over the world to battle large fires. 

“I’ve worked with people from Australia and Canada many times,” Heidal said. “I think it really has to do with the fact that there’s so many more fires and they’re a lot bigger. We need help.”

Fidler contacted Heidal in early 2018. Fidler is the chief of the Black Sheep Volunteer Fire Department in Texas and was searching for an individual certified to teach a basic course in wild land firefighting. Heidal was originally scheduled to go to Russia in April of 2018, but the plan fell through after he encountered trouble obtaining a visa. Heidal was offered the opportunity to go to Brazil instead later in the year.

Heidal also thanked the KP fire department, which allowed him to participate in this trip without charging him paid time off. “It says a lot for the type of administration we have, and the department in general that they were more than happy to let me reach out,” he said. “I think it speaks to the good will and integrity of our organization.”

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