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McElwee and Jonathan Winters.

J'Amy Brown

McElwee and Jonathan Winters.


Bomberos Without Borders


Herb McElwee is an ambulance chaser, and he not only admits it, but he’s very proud of it.

The former Montecito Fire District Fire Chief says, since 1990, he has been in hot pursuit of ambulances, along with fire trucks, fire hoses, or any other kind of fire equipment that might be heading into retirement. Once targeted, McElwee rescues the out-of-commission apparatus, and then arranges for it to be donated to communities in Mexico.

J'Amy Brown
Click to enlarge photo

J’Amy Brown

For many towns in Mexico, this equipment serves a great need,” McElwee explained. “There is equipment that is out-of-date by our firefighting standards here in the United States, but it still serviceable.”

McElwee’s recycling program began in 1990 when he was still Chief of Montecito Fire District. On vacation in the small fishing village of Puerto Penasco in the Mexican state of Sonora, McElwee visited the local fire station. He was taken back by what he saw. “They had nothing,” he said. “I knew right then it would be a nice gesture to try to help them out.”

On his return from vacation, McElwee went to work to arrange for a retired Montecito Fire District fire engine to be donated to Puerto Penasco. Later, a second truck was delivered with nearly heroic results. During a restaurant fire, the second truck enabled the Puerto Penasco fire department to swiftly contain the fire. “The Fire Commandant told me if they had only had one fire truck, they would have lost a half a block,” McElwee said.

By J'Amy Brown

Herb McElwee in uniform.

Inspired by his measurable success, McElwee recruited some local firefighting power to join the efforts. Montecito Fire District Board President Roy Jensen, retired City of Santa Barbara Fire Chief Warner McGrew, and retired Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Chief Randy Graham are among the supporters. McElwee explained the program to the California Fire District Association, which also embraced the idea and formed the California Fire District Association’s Bomberos Without Borders.

Since 1992 this group has delivered three fire trucks, 30 fire-truck tires, 250 sets of firefighting suits and helmets, rescue equipment, 250 miles of fire hose, and 200 gallons of firefighting foam. Equipment now reaches beyond the town of Puerto Penasco, meeting firefighting needs throughout Sonora.

McElwee, along with a coterie of local firefighters, takes two to four trips a year to Puerto Penasco to inventory requests, deliver equipment, and provide training. “We have ignited a partnership that extends the life of our equipment and helps these small communities accomplish their job more safely than before,” McElwee said. “It is the same concept as Doctors Without Borders, except we are firefighters.

The firefighters in Mexico are very appreciative of our effort, “he explained. “When we arrive in town, they host a big shrimp fry and a parade led by our donated fire truck.” McElwee said he does not speak Spanish, but he has no trouble communicating. “The communications just seem to come together. We are all firefighters-we speak the same language,” McElwee said. “There is a real human connection here.”

McElwee is currently in hot pursuit of an ambulance about to be retired from Montecito Fire District for the Bomberos Without Borders program, but he needs $1,500 to seal the deal. If you want to do a little bit of ambulance chasing of your own and help out, you can contact McElwee at hsmokeybear@aol.com or at the Montecito Fire District at 969-7762.

For more Montecito Montage, which comes out every Wednesday online, see independent.com/montecito.

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