Immigration debate reaches wildfire crews

Illegal workers thought to make up large part of firefighting force


SALEM, Ore. -- The debate over immigration, which has filtered into almost every corner of American life in recent months, is now sweeping through the woods, and the implications could be immense for the coming fire season in the West.

As many as half of the approximately 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.

A recent report by the inspector general for the U.S. Forest Service said illegal immigrants have been fighting fires for several years. The Forest Service said in response that it would work with immigration and customs enforcement officers, and the Social Security Administration, to improve the process of identifying violators.

At the same time, the state of Oregon, which administers private fire contracts for the Forest Service, imposed tougher rules on companies that employ firefighters, including a requirement that firefighting crew leaders have a working command of English and a formal business location where crew members can assemble.

Some Hispanic contractors say the state and federal changes could cause many immigrants, even those here legally, to stay away from the job. Other forestry workers say that firefighting might simply be too important - and that it might be too difficult to attract other applicants - 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. Escobeda said all of her workers are legal.

Some fire company owners estimate that 10 percent of the firefighting crews are illegal immigrants; government officials will not 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 in Montana, Utah and Colorado, as well as in 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.

The plight of the fire companies underscores the surprising directions that the debate over immigration can lead - such as government-required bilingualism to ensure that everyone on a fire line can understand one another - while threatening to scare away needed workers.

Serafin Garcia, who came from Mexico as a farm worker in the mid-1980s and started a fire company in Salem, which is just south of Portland, in 2001, said the new rules could ruin him. Not only is he likely to lose workers, but some industry officials suggest that larger fire companies, which tend to be owned by non-Hispanics, could crush smaller competitors like Garcia, using immigration and safety concerns as a cover.

Oregon state fire officials say the rule changes have nothing to do with immigration at all - nor, they say, is there any effort to shift the business away from Hispanic entrepreneurs.

"It's an unfortunate coincidence," said Bill Lafferty, director of the Protection From Fire program for Oregon's Department of Forestry. "All we want as a government is a good, productive, safe work force."

Lafferty said the industry grew too quickly to be well-regulated, especially during and after the bad wildfire seasons in 2000 and 2002. Between 1999 and 2003, according to state figures, the number of contracted 20-person crews doubled to about 300. State and federal officials expect to need about 237 private crews this year, based on the projections for the fire season.

Some firefighters say the growth reflects the government's willingness to look the other way on immigration issues in the interest of keeping the forests protected. The federal work force was being reduced by budget cuts, and the fires exposed the resulting vulnerability.

"It became a game of winking and nodding - `We're not going to check' - so more and more contractors went almost exclusively to Hispanic or Latino labor," said Scott Coleman, who ran a forestry company in the Eugene area for more than 30 years until his retirement this year.

A spokeswoman for the Forest Service, Rose Davis, said the agency followed federal law in hiring contractors but relied on the contractors to make sure individual workers had the documents they needed.

Davis conceded that oversight in checking up on those contracts had not been the agency's priority but said the inspector general's report would lead to more attention.

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