May 28, 2006


With Illegal Immigrants Fighting Wildfires, West Faces a Dilemma (KIRK JOHNSON, 5/28/06, NY Times)

As many as half of the roughly 5,000 private firefighters based in the Pacific Northwest and contracted by state and federal governments to fight forest fires are immigrants, mostly from Mexico. And an untold number of them are working here illegally. [...]

Some Hispanic contractors say the state and federal changes could cause many immigrants, even those here legally, to stay away from the jobs. Other forestry workers say firefighting jobs may simply be too important — and too hard to fill — to allow for a crackdown on illegal workers.

"I don't think it's in anybody's interest, including the Forest Service, to enforce immigration — they're benefiting from it," said Blanca Escobeda, owner of 3B's Forestry in Medford, Ore., which fields two 20-person fire crews. Ms. Escobeda said all of her workers were legal.

Some fire company owners estimate that 10 percent of the firefighting crews are illegal immigrants; government officials will not even hazard a guess.

The private contract crews can be dispatched anywhere in the country through the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho — and in recent years have fought fires from Montana to Utah and Colorado, as well as Washington and Oregon — anywhere that fires get too big or too numerous for local entities to handle.

The work, which pays $10 to $15 an hour, is among the most demanding and dangerous in the West. A workweek fighting a big fire can go 100 hours.

"You've got to be physically able and mentally able," said Javier Orozco, 21, who has fought fires in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, California and Montana since 2002.

Just let the flames start creeping towards Casa Tancredo and the Congressman will be handing out green cards like Snickers bars on Halloween.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 28, 2006 9:09 AM

God keep these brave firefighters safe.

Posted by: erp at May 28, 2006 12:38 PM

This discussion is sooo effing dumb.

Anything which brings "illegals" into the legal economy removes the economic advantage they now have over legals.

Read my lips. Nothing will change. If it really changed, the demand for illegals would disappear. People, this is Ecn 101 stuff. Illegals are hired because they work off the books and under the table for about 2/3 the actual cost of legal labor.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 28, 2006 1:15 PM

Nope. They'll still do the same jobs--it's not what they pay but the lack of prestige and the difficulty that makes natives shun that work.

Posted by: oj at May 28, 2006 2:09 PM

There are volunteer fire departments all across America, that are operated by non-hispanic natives. American men love to fight fires....ahh..unfortunately many of us like to start them too, but that's a different issue.

Posted by: h-man at May 28, 2006 3:39 PM

The article overstates the case (as they often do). I have yet to run into a crew dominated by spanish-speaking hispanics on the firelines. I suspect that there are areas (California?) where they are more common. Noone in fire wants crews of illegal immigrants fighting fire with them as there is no greater hazard on a wildfire than a lack of effective communication. If such a crew shows up they will quickly be recognized as a liability and placed somewhere they will not get themselves or someone else killed. Incident Commanders don't need those kinds of headaches, they already have enough troubles keeping all the indian crews separated so they don't fight.

Thats not to say there aren't lots of Mexicans working in forestry, planting trees, cutting fuel breaks, etc. They make excellent workers as long as they are sober.

Posted by: Jason Johnson at May 28, 2006 7:02 PM

Jason! Indian tribes fight with each other. Please say it ain't so.

Posted by: erp at May 28, 2006 7:48 PM

It was twenty odd years ago so my memory may be flawed and things may have changed, but in southeast Montana, you didn't call a Crow a Cheyenne (or vice versa). When us whiteboys weren't sure, then the proper alternative was "Indian." "Native Americans" lived in cities along the coasts.

And don't compare forest fire crews with small-town volunteer fire depts. The latter requires training and certifications, even at the bottom. At the lowest ranks, the first is essentially unskilled, hard manual labor, often without even power tools like chain saws. Why wouldn't work on the firelines appeal to highschool dropouts or illiterates looking for some excitement?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 28, 2006 11:30 PM