BETTY ANN BOWSER: There are so many big wildfires burning this summer that at least two western states have had to call out the National Guard to fight them. That's because the U.S. Forest Service is running short of firefighters in a wildfire season that started early. These are the people needed to fight the fires: Hand crews that do much of the grunt work, digging fire lines, chopping down smoldering trees, putting out spot fires. Hand crews were once hired and trained by the federal government, but because of budget cuts in the 1990s, many of them are today recruited and trained by private contractors. And the Forest Service's Jim Payne says the nation can't fight fires without those contract crews.
JIM PAYNE: We literally do not have enough employees within the federal and state agencies to adequately provide resources to wild land fires. Our contractors are a vital part of to our protection program.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But private contractors have had a hard time finding people who want to be firefighters. The work is seasonal, it's difficult, it's dirty, and the hours are long. So they've turned to a new labor pool: Migrant workers from Mexico and Central America, many of them illegal aliens who speak almost no English, who are in the U.S. with fake ID cards purchased on the black market. They come to the Northwest to train at a school like this one because they have heard they can make $800 or more a week. The people in this group all recently graduated from fire school in Philomath, Oregon. Most of them are today working on fire crews in the West. Several told the NewsHour they are in the United States illegally and, speaking through an interpreter, described the risks they were willing to take to get here.
MAN (Translated): The risk he's taking was almost like death, because he had not ate for, like, four days straight-- no food or water. The risk he took was getting caught by the immigration, but some people do make it on time. Some people get here quicker. Some people don't make it at all.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You mean they die?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many private contractors say they've turned to migrant workers from Mexico because they can't find native- born Americans who want the jobs, and some say they prefer Mexican labor. Mike Cox hires firefighters for an Oregon contractor.
MIKE COX: Given a choice, I'll always work with a Mexican crew. And I've always picked it that way, and it stems from the fact that I've worked with a lot of Caucasian crews that just don't want to work anymore.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Keith Whithead fields two firefighting crews made up entirely of men from Mexico. Some days he gets up at 3:00 in the morning to take them for training.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: When you bring people in and sign them up, what do they have to have to sign up?
KEITH WHITHEAD: They've got to have a green card and a social security card, and if they happen to have a driver's license, we take all that and document it down. We take photographs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How do you know if their documentation is legitimate?
KEITH WHITHEAD: Well, it's kind of hard. You know, you look at them, ask them if it's good, and, you know, you just can't do much about it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you think sometimes it's not good?
KEITH WHITHEAD: Yeah, probably so.
SPOKESMAN: Have the ones with no tools come by this truck and pick up tools from Pete.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: When these firefighters work for the forest service, their pay comes from the federal government, but private contractors are responsible for equipping and training each worker, so a lot of contractors in Oregon turn to retired firefighter John Berger.
SPOKESMAN: You're going to use these tools to cut with, or chop...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: With the help of a Spanish translator, he's put thousands of people through a four-day, basic fire safety course required by the federal government. The students learn about fire behavior and how to hose down a forest fire.
SPOKESMAN: You're looking good.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: They're taught how to dig lines, or trenches, with hand tools to keep forest fires from spreading. They have to walk three miles with a 45-pound pack on their backs in three-quarters of an hour. Berger knows a lot of his students are in the United States illegally, but he has no qualms about training them to become firefighters.
JOHN BERGER, Northwest Firefighters, Inc.: Do I feel uncomfortable about training them? Absolutely not. I don't care if they're from Mexico or South America or Antarctica. I don't care where they're from-- it's not my job to care. My job here is to make sure that they go home to their families, wherever their families are, and not in a bag.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Forest Service's Jim Payne is concerned that illegal aliens are fighting fires, but says it's not his agency's job to police them.
JIM PAYNE: We work with our contractors. It's their responsibility to comply. It's not our role as an agency to police the hiring of legal aliens, or illegal. It's INS' responsibility, and we fully cooperate with them on that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In a written statement, the Immigration and Naturalization Service confirmed it is the contractor's responsibility to ensure its employees are legal workers, and said it would investigate any contractor if it receives credible evidence of immigration law violations.
SPOKESMAN: ...Mobilization with state fire marshal's office.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: John Jackson has been managing forest fires for the state of Oregon and the federal government for 25 years, most of it as an incident commander. He's concerned that having large numbers of people on fire crews with limited English skills may compromise safety if instructions are not understood.
JOHN JACKSON, Oregon Department of Forestry: We all know that if we get really stressed... you know, it's those age-old behavioral skills and cognitive skills that kick into gear, and so it's important for our native English speakers to be able to communicate effectively with folks who may be speaking English as a second language.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you worry about this?
JOHN JACKSON: Certainly. You bet.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last week, 20 members of a Spanish-speaking fire crew, supervised by an American crew chief, had to deploy emergency fire shelters like these shown here in a training class. They were fighting a fire in Oregon. The shelters are made of a material that deflects the heat of the fire when the firefighters crawl into them. This is such a serious emergency procedure that the federal government requires an investigation whenever it happens. Although the Spanish-speaking crew was not one of Mike Cox's, it's a scenario he's thought about a lot.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you ever worry that in one of these fires four or five of your guys get killed, and they start looking, and they find that they're undocumented?
MIKE COX: I worry more about getting anybody killed than whether the documentation's good or bad. That's... you know, we're doing what we're required to do: Check identification, but more than that-- more important than checking the identification-- is getting back to the safe training, and the safe training is what keeps you from getting hurt.
SPOKESMAN: Lay on the ground.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nobody knows how many illegal aliens with limited English skills are currently out fighting America's wildfires, but at this school alone, more than 1,300 firefighters have been trained in the past year. It's estimated about 1,000 of them came from Mexico, and among that group, hundreds may be out fighting fires today.