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Language Barrier on Wildfires' Front Lines Sparks a Safety Debate

Huge blazes boost demand for crews, and non-English speakers are signing up. But a lack of communication can heighten danger.

September 14, 2003|Peter Prengaman | Associated Press Writer

SALEM, Ore. — As they fought a raging wildfire last year in southern Oregon, a fire crew got word that the blaze was approaching rapidly and all workers needed to evacuate.

They yelled the directions to a Latino crew digging a fire line, but none of them understood English. The workers didn't move.

Members of the English-speaking crew ran toward the workers, waving their arms in an attempt to communicate. Eventually, someone who could translate was found and no one was hurt.

"That's a dangerous situation," said Ed Daniels, training manager for the Oregon Department of Forestry, who investigated the account. "Knock on wood that no one has died" yet because of language barriers.

The case illustrates a growing language barrier on the front lines of the nation's wildfires as more Latino migrant workers rush to firefighting jobs throughout the West.

In Oregon and Washington, contractors who employ the majority of workers fighting forest fires in the Northwest estimate that Latinos make up more than 60% of their crews. Many of them cannot speak or understand English.

The prevalence of Spanish spoken on fire lines has prompted a safety debate among contractors. The Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordination Group, which oversees national contract crews, has strengthened language requirements to ensure more firefighters speak English.

On any 20-person crew, the boss and the three assistants must speak English fluently. All fire communication on the radio must be in English. And firefighting officials are making greater efforts to make sure those hired on crews meet the minimum English requirements.

Some contractors say they prefer to hire Latinos, regardless of language barriers, because they are hard workers even with low wages.

"They know how to work. They know how to use tools. Most of them are looking for a halfway good-paying job and firefighting does pay a decent wage," said Jack Neuman, executive director of an association of contracting groups that work out of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. He said 98% of the firefighters in the association are Latino.

Budget problems and shifting demographics also are pushing more non-English speaking Latinos onto fire lines.

In the 1980s, the federal government reduced money for forestry programs -- including pay for career firefighters. Government agencies turned to contractors, who could provide the service at lower cost.

In the 1990s, thousands of Latinos, mostly migrant farm workers, moved to the Northwest -- many settling in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley. They are now the largest minority group in Oregon and Washington state.

Huge fires in the West over the last few years have boosted demand for fire crews. In 2001, the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordination Group contracted 106 crews. This year, it has hired more than 300 crews, with 20 members each.

Many employers refuse to hire firefighters who don't speak English, arguing that language barriers create avoidable dangers.

"Fires are spoken in English," said Rick Dice, president of the National Wildfire Suppression Assn., which comprises 125 contracting members in Western States. Dice said the lack of English is usually synonymous with little experience on fires.

Emilio Coria, who has been fighting fires eight years and speaks fluent English, said most Latino firefighters are farm workers who don't speak much English or have much experience dousing flames. But, he said, with their background in the fields, they are used to working hard outside.

"We have farming in our blood," said Coria, 29.

For competitive reasons, contractors won't say how much they pay their firefighters. They are, however, required to pay at least the minimum wage in the state where they are based.

Firefighters willing to work up to 14 straight days at 12 hours per day, tolerate sweltering temperatures and risk possible injury can earn much more during a busy fire season than working on farms.

At Oregon's minimum hourly wage of $6.90, plus overtime, firefighters can earn more than $5,000 for two months' work. Food and lodging are provided. That compares with earning roughly $1,200 a month in the fields.

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 doesn't speak English, said he wanted to make more money.

"There isn't another job that pays like this," Ramirez said.

The Oregon Department of Forestry, which oversees fire contractors for Oregon and Washington, this year has sent home six crews before they even started working because they didn't meet the English requirements.

But with raging wildfires, lagging state funds and a steady stream of migrant workers, the trend toward hiring Latino crews isn't likely to reverse.

Antonio Torres, 25, a farm worker from Mexico who decided to try firefighting this summer, wonders how long English, which he doesn't speak, will be the official fire language.

"The ones who don't speak Spanish are in more danger," Torres said.

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