NEWTON, Iowa — When the Lopez family’s crowded SUV pulled into the fire station in the small Mexican town of Degollado this month, the firefighters inside were thrilled.
They had been expecting the family, who traveled almost 2,000 miles from Newton, Iowa, to help save their lives.
Inside the Lopezes’ vehicle were boxes and boxes of donated coats, helmets, gloves and boots from fire stations across Iowa — almost $90,000 worth of protective gear. Due to regulations, US firefighters couldn’t use the gear because it was at least 10 years old, even though it was all in good condition.
Until that day, Degollado firefighters had been risking their lives battling blazes without the proper fire gear.
If Kim Lopez and Newton Fire Chief Jarrod Wellik hadn’t heard about the situation, the helmets, fire-retardant pants, coats and boots probably would have ended up in the trash.
How it came together
Earlier this year, Kim Lopez was visiting Degollado, in the state of Jalisco — known for its mariachi music and tequila — when she ran into a friend who is a local firefighter.
“I was on vacation in Mexico where my parents are originally from and I was talking to a friend who said they were looking for donations,” the 21-year-old said.
After returning home to Newton, she struck up a conversation with the town’s state representative, who regularly visits her parents’ Mexican restaurant, La Cabaña. She asked if he knew what happens to old fire gear after it’s replaced, and he put her in touch with Newton’s fire chief.
When Jarrod Wellik told her the equipment would be thrown out, she couldn’t believe it.
“This stuff could go to use,” she said.
Like Lopez, Wellik had seen firsthand the lack of equipment at fire stations in Mexico. He couldn’t imagine going in to fight a fire without protective clothing.
So the two devised a plan.
The fire chief immediately reached out to the Iowa Organization for Professional Fire Chiefs for help.
“Soon as I asked, people responded,” Wellik told CNN. “They wanted to give. They said this is a great project.”
Within weeks, the fire chief’s office was cluttered with stacks of suitable fire equipment from stations across Iowa. He was in shock at the sheer amount of donations.
“That’s when you when you think about the love for being a firefighter,” Wellik shared.
Lifesaving equipment saved from the landfill
In the United States, the National Fire Protection Association limits equipment use to 10 years for most fire departments. But Wellik said fire gear is seasoned at that mark and, in his opinion, more protective than when it’s out of the box.
A complete set of new “fire turnout” gear — which includes a heavy-duty fire-retardant coat, boots, and helmet — can cost upwards of $2,500.
After taking inventory of the donations, the estimated worth of all the gear was close to $90,000.
Lopez and Wellik faced one more hurdle: getting all of the heavy equipment from Iowa to Mexico.
Just one set of gear weighed approximately 75 pounds, so the cost of shipping would have been astronomical.
That’s when the Lopez family stepped in. They packed their SUV with the donations and drove more than 27 hours to Degollado, arriving to cheers and celebrations on the 4th of July.
With the lifesaving gear saved from the landfill and protecting more lives, Wellik says he hopes the accomplishments of Iowa firefighters and the Lopezes inspires others.
“We’re a land of abundance, the US has so much to give, and we’re so blessed with what we have,” Wellik said. “It’s amazing how other countries can use the things we can’t use anymore.”