7-13 July 2017 #866

The Road to a Safer Kathmandu

A unique project to augment Nepal’s lacking fire-fighting capacity, while boosting tourism
Kate Ryan

The Soarway Foundation
From left to right, Michael Kobold, Fire Chief Kishor Kumar Bhattarai, American actor Michael Imperioli, actor Sunil Thapa, and Police Superintendent Bipin Regmi stand with one of Kathmandu’s five fire trucks by Boudanath Stoupa.

Fire Brigade Chief Kishor Kumar Bhattarai drives his Japanese fire truck cautiously through the narrow streets of Basantapur that wear the scars of the 2015 earthquake. The donated truck has been in need of a spare part for seven years, and he does not expect a replacement any time soon.

“In order to serve the Valley, I need at least 50 trucks,” says Bhattarai. “Right now, we have five.”

This November, the beleaguered fire brigade will triple its fleet with the help of 75 Hollywood actors, Nepali celebrities, political leaders, army generals, and philanthropists from around the world. The international team will drive 10 American fire fighting vehicles from Birganj to Kathmandu.

The expedition is seven years in the making for Michael Kobold, the German watchmaker-mountaineer-philanthropist behind the effort. After personal and international setbacks, the death of a friend and an economic blockade, Kobold has all the permits and target date.

In the last month alone there have been two major fires in the valley: the Yeti Carpet Factory and the Om Agricultural Farm in which 52 dairy cows perished.

Kate Ryan
The yard where the fire vehicles are kept. Not all of these trucks are functioning.

New York City, with a population of 8 million, has 200 fire engines and employs 10,200 fire fighters. By that math, Kathmandu’s population of 2.5 million requires 62 fire engines and 3,000 fire fighters. Today, less than 50 fire fighters serve the entire valley with 5 antiquated trucks whose ladders reach 10 stories. Kathmandu’s growing numbers of high-rise buildings are beyond the current ladder reach.

And while the dispatch time is less than two minutes, response time is never a guarantee. The trucks have no GPS system, and when they get lost, Bhattarai says he sticks his head out the window and uses his nose.

Bhattarai says the two major causes of fire are gas leaks and electrical shortages. These events become more common after an earthquake when pipes and electric distribution systems are damaged. And while Kathmandu is still rebuilding, stairways remain compromised and doors may jam as a result of the shaking. Fire risk is on the rise and evacuation routes are unreliable.

Kathmandu needs emergency resources, but it also needs tourists. Annual visitor numbers reached pre-earthquake levels of 700,000 this year, but Nepal’s target is 2 million by 2020. Kobold hopes the celebrities driving the trucks will raise Nepal’s profile, attract tourists with deeper pockets, boost the economy and create jobs that discourage young Nepalis from heading abroad for work.

“We want people to know Nepal is open for business,” Kobold said. “It’s safe, beautiful, and breathtaking.”

Kobold originally partnered with former US Ambassador to Nepal Scott Delisi and his close friend, actor James Gandolfini, on the project. When Gandolfini died of a heart attack in 2013, Kobold put his passion project on hold for a year and a half.

On a morning hike on January 1, 2015, Kobold decided it was time to get back to work. He founded the Soarway Foundation with Delisi on April 1st to focus on disaster preparedness in Nepal. The fire truck project was top priority.

Kate Ryan
Chief Kishor Kumar Bhattarai is the only professionally trained fire fighter in Kathmandu.

Just three weeks later, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Kathmandu killed nearly 9,000 people, and Kobold threw himself into Soarway, setting everything else, including his watch business, to the side.

“You can find ways to make customers happy,” he said. “You can’t delay helping Nepal.”

Celebrity friends like actor Malcolm McDowell and Explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes called Kobold to volunteer for the fire truck expedition. But even as the logistics fell into place, politics took a turn for the worse. India’s blockade came five months after the earthquake and lasted another five. It took Kobold 21 months of daily meetings to gain the necessary permits for the vehicles.

Barring further complications, six fire engines, one ladder truck, one command vehicle and two Volvo track steers will arrive in Kathmandu this autumn to be handed over to the municipality. In the meantime, Soarway is designing a $2 million fire station for the capital.

Kate Ryan

Soarway will fly engineers to Kathmandu every six months for the next five years to inspect and service the donated vehicles, provide spare parts and train local mechanics. It will also bring western firefighters and Navy SEALs to train Nepali fire fighters. As of now, Bhattarai is the only professionally trained Nepali fire fighter in the valley, his other colleagues simply learn on the job.

Kobold says this is a pilot project, and the impact of the first 10 vehicles will determine whether more donors join the effort to improve Nepal’s firefighting capacity.

“Nepal spells adventure,” says Kobold, but sometimes adventure means danger. He hopes investment in emergency training and infrastructure will change that.