Posted by: calloftheandes | September 22, 2012

Families Face Evacuations as Fires Threaten Ministries

Firefighters at the Lumbisí fire in the greater Quito area earlier in September. (Photo complements of El Telégrafo.)

Hermann Schirmacher

With suitcases packed, Hermann and Irene Schirmacher are planning no family vacation, but instead an evacuation if necessary.

Wildfires are the latest threat to several provinces of Ecuador, including Pichincha province where the Schirmachers serve as missionaries with HCJB Global. In the greater Quito area, firefighters have fought 2,053 forest fires (25 per day) since the dry season began in June with 1,154 hectares (2,850 acres) destroyed by fires.
“We’ve seen a marked decrease in rainfall (even for the dry season),” said Hernán Parreño of the Instituto Nacional de Meteorología e Hidrología on Sept. 18. “We have had 25 consecutive days without rain. Besides that, humidity is very low.” (The greater Quito area received rain on Friday, Sept. 21.)

The Schirmachers live in Cumbayá (pronounced like a popular campfire chorus), a short drive from the pastures and fields that formerly served as Radio Station HCJB’s international transmitter site at Pifo. Nearby, construction continues in the final stages of preparing the runways and control tower of Quito’s new international airport.

Milton Pumisacho

On Sept. 5 the Schirmachers learned of a fire threatening their home when a neighbor called to offer them refuge. Hermann quickly headed home but was delayed as traffic glutted the 1,340-meter (three-quarter-mile) long Guayasamín Tunnel connecting Quito with the adjacent valley.

Meanwhile, Irene and the couple’s teenage children watered down the roof and walls of their house. “‘Good job!’ I told Irene,” Schirmacher recounted of the September incident. Four days later in the nearby town of Zámbiza, the family of a Radio Station HCJB engineer, Milton Pumisacho, was ordered evacuated from their home. Pumisacho continued living there to safeguard the family’s belongings.

At a sector known as Chilla (near Machala) in the southern Ecuadorian province of El Oro, programming from 94.7 HCJB-2 (La Conexión) has been silenced since Thursday, Sept. 6, when a wildfire destroyed cables that serviced the station’s FM repeater as well as other broadcasting facilities.

“We have a power cable coming through the trees from a power pole with a transformer,” said HCJB Global engineer Tim Zook. “That would have been the most vulnerable. We also have cables coming out of the (transmitter) building at a high level—over six feet—and then heading up a tower. Those could possibly be burned, but it would take a big fire to [destroy them].”

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, media reports indicated that the Chilla fire was then uncontrolled due to high winds, difficult terrain and lack of rain all contributing to a disaster declaration by the Emergency Operations Committee (COE).

As the fire blazed, a Guayaquil fire chief, Fernando Ayala, told the Quito daily, El Comercio, that “with 70 km/h (43 mph) winds fanning the fire, it’s hard because there’s a lot of grass and about a meter deep of dried material that has fallen from the pines that is easily ignited.”

Tim Zook

“We try to keep the brush cut down and away from the transmitter sites so that when it does burn it doesn’t create problems,” Zook explained. “But we weren’t prepared in Machala (Chilla) up on the mountain. We didn’t have any way to remove brush, and the fire went through there and burned cables, so it’s off the air.”

The newspaper reported that the conflagration started at the Huiracocha antenna site and spread, destroying some 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of forest land despite responses by fire crews from El Oro, Azuay, Guayas, Loja and Los Ríos provinces. The Chilla fire was finally controlled by Sept. 13, and electrical crews entered to begin work.

The Chilla repeater’s 1,000-watt transmitter atop Mount Huiracocha at an altitude of about 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) normally sends a signal to southern coastal Ecuador as well as northern Peru. There is no backup transmitter for the repeater, and Zook and Pumisacho anticipate traveling to El Oro on Sept. 23-28 to reconnect the site and restore the signal to the airwaves.

In a Sept. 12 Facebook post, as fires burned on two mountainsides surrounding Quito, Jeff Ingram observed, “I have had ash from wildfires fall on my head in two different cities on two different continents this year.”

As part of his responsibilities as the mission’s member care director, Ingram and his wife, Nancy, spent most of this month ministering to missionaries in Ecuador, returning home to Colorado on Friday, Sept. 21. For two days earlier this summer (June 27-28), the HCJB Global Ministry Service Center in Colorado Springs was closed as a wildfire blazed uncontrolled west of the office. Amid that fire’s destruction, 346 homes were destroyed. Four of the mission’s staff members were evacuated, but none of their homes were damaged. That blaze—the Waldo Canyon Fire—was fully contained by mid-July.

Sources: HCJB Global, El Comercio, El Telégrafo

The signal from La Chilla antenna site atop Mt. Huiracocha reaches as far north as Guayaquil and as far south as northern Peru. The La Chilla site is near Machala in Ecuador’s El Oro Province.


  1. […] control, according to a 4 p.m. Friday statement from Quito authorities. The Schirmacher family unpacked the suitcases they’ve had ready at their home in Cumbayá for a possible […]

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