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  • Hispanic Fire Crews

    SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Steve Santoyo picks up an ax and looks into
    the faces of a dozen firefighting recruits standing before him at a
    training camp.
    "Your responsibility is to keep your tools sharp," he says in
    English.
    The recruits, all Hispanic but one, listen as a translator
    conveys Santoyo's directions. Some have questions, but when the
    Spanish queries become too detailed, Santoyo cuts them off.
    "We have to make sure to speak to him too," Santoyo says,
    pointing to the non-Hispanic recruit.
    Over the past five years, Hispanics have rushed to take jobs on
    firefighting crews. In Oregon and Washington, two of the country's
    leading contracting states, contractors estimate that Hispanics
    make up more than 60 percent of their crews.
    Some contractors say they prefer to hire Hispanics because they
    are hard workers and are willing to work for minimum wage.
    "Many white kids just don't want to work the way Hispanics
    will," said Jack Neuman, executive director of the Oregon Minority
    Contractor's League, an association of 17 contracting groups that
    work out of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Neuman said 98 percent of
    the firefighters in the association are Hispanic.
    But not all contractors agree.
    "That's bull, a 100 percent crock, to say Hispanics are the
    only ones who want to work," said Rick Dice, president of the
    National Wildfire Suppression Association, which groups together
    125 contracting members in a host of Western states.
    "There are high unemployment rates, and firefighting is a good
    place for college kids to get tuition money," said Dice.
    Dice said he doesn't recruit Hispanics for his crews because
    most who apply for the jobs don't speak fluent English and have
    little experience fighting fires.
    Emilio Coria, who has been fighting fires eight years and speaks
    fluent English, agreed that most Hispanics are farm workers who
    have little experience dousing flames. He also agreed that most who
    are on fire crews don't speak English. But, he said, their
    background in field work gives them an edge in the ability to work
    well outside.
    "We have farming in our blood," said Coria, 29.
    Hispanics have become a dominant presence on fire lines because
    of budget and demographic changes.
    In the 1980s, the federal government started scaling back
    funding for forestry programs - including pay for career
    firefighters. State agencies then turned to contractors, which
    provided the service at lower cost.
    In the 1990s, thousands of Hispanics, mostly migrant farmers,
    began immigrating to the Northwest - many of them settling in
    Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley. They are now the largest
    minority group in Oregon and Washington state. And many are willing
    to fight wildfires for minimum wage.
    Huge fires in the West over the past few years have increased
    the demand for fire crews.
    In 2001, 106 contract crews were hired by the Pacific Northwest
    Wildfire Coordination Group, which consists of representatives from
    federal and state land and fire agencies from Oregon and
    Washington. This year, it plans to contract 300.
    Contractors, because of competition, are reluctant to say how
    much they pay their firefighters. They are, however, required to at
    least pay the minimum wage in the state where they are based.
    For those willing to work continuous 12-hour days, tolerate
    sweltering temperatures and risk possible injury, Hispanics can
    earn more as firefighters during a busy fire season than working on
    farms for the summer.
    At Oregon's minimum hourly wage of $6.90, plus overtime when
    they put in more than 40 hours for the week, firefighters can earn
    over $5,000 for two months of work. They don't have to worry about
    paying for lodging and food because that's provided.
    The pay attracted Vicente Ramirez, 58, a first-year firefighter
    from Mexico.
    After years of picking grapes in California and apples in
    Washington state, Ramirez, who speaks no English, said he wanted a
    chance to make more money.
    "There isn't another job that pays like this," Ramirez said.
    But Don Moss, who contracts crews in Oregon and Idaho, argued
    the shift toward Hispanic crews is eroding firefighting quality.
    "Not to sound racist or anything, but what is becoming the
    majority of firefighting forces are farm labor workers who are not
    firefighters," said Moss, who doesn't assemble Hispanic crews.
    "The real firefighters are being displaced."
    Rod Nichols, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry,
    said contractors have the right to try to cut their costs as much
    as possible, as long as they meet training and safety standards.
    When the blaze ignites, the crew with a combination of the
    lowest rate and quickest ability to get to the fire is chosen.
    "It's a matter of supply and demand," said Nichols. "And
    first come, first served."
    As the numbers of Hispanic firefighters have increased, so have
    concerns about safety when so many of them don't speak English.
    John Jackson, incident commander on last summer's Eyerly fire in
    central Oregon, said there were instances when designated bilingual
    members on Hispanic crews, under extreme stress on the fire lines,
    were not able to understand English directions.
    "As more and more fire crews speak English as a second
    language, if at all, it's an issue we need to manage," Jackson
    said.
    On any given 20-person crew, the crew boss and the three
    assistant squad bosses must speak English fluently. And under new
    rules adopted by the Pacific Northwest Coordination Group, all fire
    communication over the radio must be in English.
    But Antonio Torres, a 25-year-old farmworker from Mexico who
    decided to try firefighting this summer, wonders how long English
    will be the official fire language.
    "The ones who don't speak Spanish are in more danger," said
    Torres, who doesn't speak English.

    (Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
    Proudly serving as the IACOJ Minister of Information & Propoganda!
    Be Safe! Lookouts-Awareness-Communications-Escape Routes-Safety Zones

    *Gathering Crust Since 1968*
    On the web at www.section2wildfire.com

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