Firefighters Lacked Sufficient Material to Extinguish Patacón Hill Fire - Expat Community

Firefighters Lacked Sufficient Material to Extinguish Patacón Hill Fire

May 17, 2024 | News & Articles, Panama | 0 comments

By Adelita Coriat

To control the fires at the landfill during the first quarter of 2024, it was necessary to urgently import a highly efficient product, which increased the cost of the input by more than $200,000.

Government Expenditure
The government spent approximately $2 million to extinguish the three fires in January, February, and March of 2024 at the open-air landfill of Patacón Hill. Of this amount, the fire department paid $665,373.18 for the direct purchase of F500, a high-efficiency encapsulating agent whose sole distributor in Panama is the company Delace, according to information obtained by the Panama Fire Department (CBP).

Resources Utilized
Reports from the entity show that the cost includes labor hours for over 50 firefighters and 25 officials from related institutions, five 1,000-gallon water fire trucks, and six rapid intervention vehicles to access areas that fire trucks cannot reach. To extinguish the fire, foam concentrate, five tanker trucks from the Fire Department, two ambulances, six additional tanker trucks from the Idaan, portable pumps, hoses, machetes, shovels, ladders, rechargeable lamps, suction tubs, and thermal cameras, among other equipment, were required.

Challenges and Investigation
Despite predictions of a severe dry season due to the El Niño phenomenon extending into May, and forecasts compromising freshwater reserves for human consumption and the operation of the Panama Canal, the fire department’s warehouses did not have enough inventory to act immediately, especially for large-scale incidents. The January 18 fire, the first of the year, burned 18,232 square meters – according to the distance calculated by the firefighters – and took 10 days to extinguish. This happened despite the government declaring a ‘sanitary emergency’ at the landfill in March 2023 to mitigate the “environmental disaster caused by poor waste management,” as reported in a press release from the Presidency. Consequently, control of the site was taken over, and the contract with the company Asociación Accidental Urbaser-Plotosa (Urbalia) was terminated in March 2023, citing non-compliance.

Structural Problems
The reports prepared by the firefighters, to which La Estrella de Panamá had access, indicate that the fires in the first quarter of the year were caused by one or more sources, in some cases simultaneously, as evidenced by the carbonization marks found on the ground. There is no one responsible or identified for these events. The Public Ministry began an investigation two months ago to clarify the events, but so far they have not found the culprits, according to an official source from this entity. The lack of security in the area, where scavengers, nearby residents, and strangers converge without any restrictions to enter or leave, makes it difficult to gather evidence or identify who caused the fires. In a report, the firefighters highlight that the landfill lacks a Waste Ordering and Separation Plan, making it impossible to identify the danger of the waste and reduce the risk of combustion.

Fire Incident Details
On Thursday, January 18, 2024, 15 minutes after 4:00 p.m., the firefighters received an alert of a fire at the Patacón Hill landfill. Upon arrival, they noticed a dense layer of smoke that obstructed visibility. Later, this toxic cloud would spread over much of the city like a large blanket. According to a firefighter who spoke to this newspaper on condition of anonymity, “when we were called, it was already a declared fire, not in its incipient phase.” The AAUD should have detected the first flames to prevent its spread.

The firefighters noticed two burning areas within the landfill. One was located in the upper part, and the second in the tire storage. “Despite the distance between them, both ignited simultaneously,” as mentioned in the firefighters’ report. Everything burned: plastics, aluminum, tires, cardboard, organic waste, hospital waste, metals, and whatever can be imagined among the 2,400 tons of waste received daily at the landfill.

Initially, the firefighters tried to extinguish the points with water and foam concentrate, but the fire gained ground. On the night of that Thursday, Sergio Delgado, the F500 supplier, received a call from the firefighters urgently requesting the encapsulator. It was not the first time he sold the product. Just a year before, they needed it to extinguish a fire that consumed seven warehouses in the Free Zone. He also supplied the product in October and December 2023, the latter to extinguish another fire at Patacón Hill.

“Responding every time they call, at any hour, literally as fire extinguishers,” Delgado described in an interview with La Estrella de Panamá. As he listened to the firefighters narrate the out-of-control fire over the phone, he recalled a meeting months ago where he warned them that the 2024 season would be ‘very serious due to the El Niño phenomenon’. He advised them to stock up ‘just in case’.

Delace had 384 barrels committed to another client abroad but sold them to the firefighters due to the urgency. Two days later, the Ministry of the Presidency called again as the firefighters couldn’t keep up. With the inventory depleted, he had to air-freight the barrels from Georgia, USA, where the factory is located. “The most expensive product is the one you don’t have,” Delgado summarized. And so it was. The government had to import two shipments on different dates, paying more than $200,000. The January fire cost the government over $600,000 in total. In total, 1,624 barrels, each containing 5 gallons, were dispatched.

Structural Problems and Recommendations
The Patacón Hill landfill covers 132 hectares and is located between two main roads, the Panama-Colón highway and the avenue leading to the Centennial Bridge. For proper operation, it requires a 2 km buffer zone to separate the landfill from neighboring areas, but this does not exist. Informal settlements and government housing projects can be seen nearby.

The landfill’s operational lifespan, calculated in 1984, was 50 years. In theory, it should have 10 more years, “but it’s difficult,” estimates Gabriel Iglesias, a recycling specialist. The landfill lacks an industrial center with a perimeter fence and security to control access.

Operating a landfill requires stone and soil to cover the waste, but the quarry designated for this purpose was concessioned in the 1990s, and the material was used for other purposes. “Not covering the waste can lead to fires, contamination, and leachates that eventually pollute groundwater because the treatment capacity of the tubs is insufficient,” says Iglesias.

Understanding Recycling
In waste management, there is a ‘magic’ word: recycling. But as Iglesias tells us, the issue is more complex than it seems. It requires four R’s: reduce, reuse, recover, and recycle. Panama only has industries to recycle paper and cardboard, with some small initiatives starting with plastic and aluminum. While it’s not unattainable, it requires an integrated management plan of policies and applicable methodologies. Starting from the origin requires reviewing “what comes into the country that cannot be recycled.” An example, he says, is the legally imported second-hand tires that scavengers burn to extract metal. Another crucial aspect is the extended producer responsibility, which must have mechanisms to recover merchandise and prevent it from ending up in rivers. “People don’t throw away what has value,” Iglesias asserts.

Iglesias doubts that the recent fires were intentional. “There’s no proof,” he asserts. “If you don’t have a video of the act, there’s no proof,” he insists, attributing the fires to high summer temperatures that could have caused spontaneous combustion. “Exposed waste can catch fire with anything, especially with the amount of methane gas condensed under the waste that, if not treated properly, can fuel the fire,” he explains.

Ideally, Iglesias suggests starting a transfer plant, a large warehouse that receives waste, recovers materials, and sends the rest to the landfill. He believes charging by tonnage would force the industry to review what it imports, produces, and the quality of the waste. Currently, “there are no limits on the quantity and quality of waste, nor a solution for refrigerant gases and septic tanks; everything ends up in the same place,” he describes.


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