PLUMAS COUNTY, Calif. — At more than 960,000 acres, the Dixie Fire is larger than the state of Rhode Island. At the height of firefighting efforts, there were more than 6,500 personnel, including many Spanish-speaking firefighters and crews of majority Mexican nationals.
“In Spanish? Trabajo de bombero, or workers of the fire,” said David “Buenos” Diaz, a crew boss from San Diego with more than 20 years of experience as a wildland firefighter.
On Sunday, his crew was working a section of Lassen County where the fire had already blackened tree trunks. They were putting out hot spots and carving containment lines into the soil with hand tools. The workers are hired and trained by a contractor with the U.S. Forest Service.
Though wildland firefighting can be dangerous and difficult work, Diaz said the bomberos come from all over Mexico for opportunity.
“People coming from Mexico, they’re just like everybody. Everybody wants to make a good living, everybody wants to eat well, take care of our families,” Diaz said.
21-year-old Sergio Coria Blanco was one of the youngest faces in the crew, leaving behind his brothers and sisters in his hometown of Morelia, in the state of Michoacán.
“There are many more possibilities to make money here, and I like the job,” Coria said.
With wildfire conditions in California growing ever more extreme, the U.S. Forest service said crews like this one are being utilized to mop up at the tail of the fire, freeing up more specialized crews to attack at the head of the fire.
“Apart from fighting the fires, we do different jobs to restore the nature, plant trees, that kind of work,” said Ubaldo Vargas, the team’s other crew boss.
Vargas said the bomberos who work in the U.S. can expect to earn more money here than they might back home.
“For the people that come from Mexico, they always have a dream to come work hard and help their families,” Vargas said.
There is also a sense of brotherhood, accomplishment, and pride among the crew, especially when they think about their loved ones back home.
“My daughters say, ‘my dad’s a firefighter, he works hard every day,” Diaz said.