In con­ser­va­tive North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Mex­i­can im­mi­grants join in bat­tle against enor­mous Carr Fire

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY RUBEN VIVES

Be­hind River Ridge Ter­race in Red­ding, where the mon­strous Carr Fire had de­stroyed homes, a fire crew of 20 men used shov­els to stab the charred earth.

Un­der the blaz­ing sun, the clink­ing of metal stopped when one of the men, while scoop­ing out dirt from un­der a tree, spot­ted smoke ris­ing from the ground.

“Humo!” he shouted in Span­ish.

From afar, the mop-up op­er­a­tion was typ­i­cal fire­fight­ing work, with one ex­cep­tion – it was be­ing done by mostly Mex­i­can im­mi­grants who spend their off-sea­sons pick­ing or­anges, lemons and cher­ries across Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon and Cal­i­for­nia.

Each year, thou­sands of im­mi­grants work as wild­land fire­fight­ers, ply­ing the trade at a time when ex­treme weather is pro­duc­ing larger and more de­struc­tive fires in the West.

“I’d say for the last 15 years, the His­panic pop­u­la­tion started to get more in­volved in this kind of work,” said Fed­erico Rocha Sr., a Mex­i­can im­mi­grant and the team’s boss.

The pri­vate con­tract crew ar­rived five days ago in Red­ding, con­duct­ing con­trol burns and mop-up work in an ef­fort to help fight the wild­fire that swept through Shasta and Trin­ity coun­ties and killed six peo­ple, in­clud­ing two chil­dren and two fire­fight­ers.

The fire has de­voured more than 1,000 homes and scorched more than 115,000 acres.

Of­fi­cials said more than 13,000 fire­fight­ers are on duty, fight­ing 17 large fires that have burned more than 320,000 acres and dis­placed more than 32,000 res­i­dents across the state. Seven­teen states have of­fered as­sis­tance to Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the last week, send­ing help from as far away as Maine and Florida.

Of­fi­cials say the fire con­di­tions and the amount of fire­fight­ing re­sources de­voted to con­trol wild­fires may be­come the new norm.

For the first time in its 110-year his­tory, the U.S. For­est Ser­vice has spent more than 50 per­cent of its bud­get to sup­press the nation’s wild­fires. Fire sea­sons are also 78 days longer than in 1970s, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

Un­der th­ese con­di­tions, ev­ery bit of mus­cle helps – and field work­ers know hard la­bor.

A 2007 re­port by the Amer­i­can Im­mi­gra­tion Coun­cil found that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of wild­land fire­fight­ers were im­mi­grants, mostly Mex­i­can-born men.

Shasta County is Trump coun­try. The pres­i­dent won the county with 65 per­cent of the vote. In Fe­bru­ary, Shasta County voted to be­come a “non­sanc­tu­ary” zone for im­mi­grants in the coun­try il­le­gally.

But for the fire crew of Mex­i­can im­mi­grants, pol­i­tics never en­ters the mind. This isn’t about Trump or his sup­port­ers, or about bor­der walls. It’s about the pride of pro­tect­ing peo­ple’s homes. Rocha, a Mex­i­can im­mi­grant him­self, said res­i­dents have been grate­ful.

“When peo­ple ap­pre­ci­ate what we do, it makes us feel good,” he said. “Even at stores, peo­ple thank us and they’re happy we’re here help­ing.”

The fire crew was trained and hired by R&R Con­tract­ing, a pri­vate com­pany based in Salem, Ore., and op­er­ated by one of Rocha’s rel­a­tives. The com­pany is also just one of hun­dreds in Ore­gon that are con­tracted by state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments to fight for­est fires.

Ex­perts say Ore­gon is in the fore­front of states that have cre­ated cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­grams for con­tract fire­fight­ers. A siz­able num­ber of them are Latino im­mi­grants.

The Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Forestry and Fire Pro­tec­tion could not im­me­di­ately say what per­cent­age of its fire­fight­ers were im­mi­grants.

From an ob­ser­va­tional stand­point, Mike Mohler, deputy di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for Cal Fire, said the depart­ment is pretty di­verse.

“I know we have Rus­sians and we have Mex­i­cans rep­re­sented up and down the state,” he said. “We should have a de­cent in­flu­ence, but now I’m cu­ri­ous.”

Lean­ing on his shovel, sweat­ing, 46-year-old Juan Cis­neros, a Mex­i­can im­mi­grant, said it was his sec­ond year with the crew.

In the off-sea­son, he’s out pick­ing mostly or­anges in Visalia, earn­ing money to help care for his wife and four daugh­ters.

“This job is hard and a lit­tle dan­ger­ous,” he said. “But you have to do what you can for the fam­ily.”

Cis­neros, who is from Mi­choacán, said the job is hard work be­cause of the heavy gear and in­tense la­bor.

“It can get tir­ing,” he said, adding that while it is phys­i­cally chal­leng­ing, it is re­ward­ing.

“I feel im­por­tant when some­one says thank you for the work we do,” he said. “When we’re walk­ing around peo­ple say thank you to us for be­ing here and fight­ing a fire.”

Cis­neros said he doesn’t like what he hears on the news about im­mi­grants, but he tries to sim­ply ig­nore it. He hopes crit­ics of im­mi­grants will pay at­ten­tion to the work he and oth­ers do.

“I want them to see our con­tri­bu­tions here,” he said.

Pablo Araujo, who picks cher­ries in Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the off-sea­son, said the job has been grow­ing on him.

“I’ve spent most of my life pick­ing cher­ries,” he said. “But now, I don’t know. This job is in­ter­est­ing.”

Along Quartz Hill Road, where the men were try­ing to scrape dirt away to get to the smol­der­ing roots of a tree, a man in a white truck drove by with his head out the win­dow.

“Good work guys!” he yelled, giv­ing a thumbs up. “Thank you!”


Fred­erico Rocha Sr., cen­ter, leads his fire­fight­ers as they mop up hot spots near homes in Red­ding, Calif., last week. His crew – pri­vate con­trac­tors from Salem, Ore. – ar­rived in Red­ding five days ago.

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