Grants Pass, Ore.—One hot summer day in 2002, as the Biscuit fire was roaring through the Siskiyou National Forest, Steve Karkanen and the Lolo Hotshots were trying to keep it from jumping the line at Bear Camp Ridge.
Part of the U.S. Forest Service’s elite corps of expert full-time wildland firefighters, the Lolo Hotshots were working with two contract crews, the grunts of the wildfire fighting business—one of which did not speak much English and showed they also were short on experience.
“One of my guys who was running a dozer went down the hill to corral part of a spot fire,” Karkanen, supervisor of the crew, recalled from his office in Missoula, Mont. “A crew of Latinos was tasked with making sure the line was secure.
“They had no idea what they needed to do with it. And more importantly, they weren’t communicating the fact that there was a spot fire across the line,” which threatened to overtake the bulldozer crew, he said. “It was just a matter of luck I was walking down the line and saw what was developing. . . It was not a good situation at all.”
As the nation publicly debates immigration reform, the state of Oregon is enforcing tough new standards on the 158 contract firefighting crews that it oversees.
Contract crews are composed of firefighters employed by private companies that contract with the government to fight fires.
Crews from Oregon account for 78 percent of the contract firefighters in the country and are made up mostly of Latinos.
Each crew consists of 20 people.
Federal costs for fighting wildfires have been running about $1 billion a year since 2000, the year that 8.4 million acres of rangeland and forests burned around the country.
With declining budgets, federal agencies such as the Forest Service can no longer fill the need for full-time firefighters. Contract crews have filled the gap, even though they generally are more expensive.
But that has led to some problems, such as the close call on the Biscuit fire.
Acting on complaints from fire bosses and fire crew contractors, the Oregon Department of Forestry is phasing in standardized tests to ensure crew bosses speak English and the language of their firefighters well enough to be safe on the fire line.
Inspectors check to be sure contractors maintain proper dispatch facilities, records, training and equipment. It is up to contractors to assure that none of their firefighters are illegal immigrants.
Failure can mean suspension or termination of the contract.
Low bidders no longer have first crack at jobs just by keeping estimates down. Starting this year, dispatchers have been able to call in the crew with the best performance record, not the one offering to do the work for less.
Four Latino contractors are suing the department in U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon, claiming that enforcement of the new regulations is racially motivated and reflects a belief that Latino crews are more likely to “cut corners and engage in misconduct to make money.”
“It’s not our theory they are discriminating against Latino firefighters. But they are discriminating against Latino contractors,” said Kevin Jacoby, a paralegal in the Salem law firm handling the lawsuit. “If they did it on a wider scale, they wouldn’t have anybody to fight fires.”
The lead plaintiff, Mountain Forestry of Independence, lost its contract for 16 fire crews in 2004 over a record-keeping dispute.
“When they identify a problem in one of these files currently under a Latino firefighter, they come down very hard on them,” Jacoby said.
Oregon officials insist they do not intentionally target Latinos, who account for 27 of the 61 contractors in Oregon.
But they say they are improving performance and safety in an industry that was spinning out of control a few years ago when a string of big wildfire seasons created demand that outstripped the supply of experienced crews.
“Everybody is feeling good about this process, with the exception of some folks who are suing us,” said Bill Lafferty, fire program director for the department.
The crackdown has been welcomed by established contractors, including Latino employers such as G&B Reforestation of Salem.
“I believe it’s actually good,” said Andres Coria, a squad boss for the company started last year by his father, Gerardo. “This kind of eliminates a lot of these underbidding guys who just come in and bid a low price.”
Coria said leadership positions are filled by bilingual family members, and the firefighters break down about half Latino and half white.
Coria said he doesn’t think he can spot forged work papers, so he recruits among high school and college friends.
An inspector general’s report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture this year took particular note of complaints about English fluency, and raised the possibility that some crews likely include illegal immigrants.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates about half of the 300,000 Latinos in Oregon are undocumented, but no one has anything but guesses on the proportion among firefighters.