The Mexican Firefighting Crew That Saves Lives Across the Border

In 1989, Big Bend National Park, at the southernmost tip of Texas, had an epic fire season, after an abandoned campfire sparked a blaze in the mountains that March. “Big Bend had, golly, forty fires that year, or something close to that,” John Morlock, who later worked as the park’s fire-management officer, said. There was no dedicated fire crew—“You’re a law-enforcement ranger, and you’re an E.M.T., and you also fight fire,” Morlock added, describing park-ranger duties. The remote location made it impractical to summon assistance from other federal fire crews. “If you call for help, man, it’s just a long time coming,” he said.

But there was assistance closer at hand. Big Bend is at the border of the United States and Mexico. A handful of Mexican villages sit just outside the park boundaries, on the southern banks of the Rio Grande. Following that 1989 fire season, park officials recruited a couple of dozen men from one of those villages, outfitted them with firefighting gear, and trained them to respond to fires within the park. The crew elected to call themselves the Diablos, because they told the chief ranger that they would fight fires “like devils.”

The cross-border collaboration was scrappy, often improvisatory. The Mexican towns had no electricity or telephone service, so when park officials wanted the Diablos to report for duty they’d have someone drive an emergency vehicle to a high point, flash the lights, and blare the siren three times. The Diablos would make their way across the river via foot or rowboat, help the park crews extinguish the blaze, and return to Mexico until the next fire broke out.

A few years after Morlock was hired as Big Bend’s fire-management officer, in 1996, West Texas endured another intense fire season. “There was stuff happening all around us,” Morlock said. “We’re talking somewhere around thirty thousand acres of mountains on fire.” The Diablos were authorized to work only inside the national park, so Morlock appealed to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service office in nearby Presidio. “They had the authority to let Mexican residents come into the U.S. and work. I said, ‘Y’all can damn near see the smoke. What do you think about me taking the Diablos up there?’ ”

Morlock got permission to drive the Diablos into the Glass Mountains, where they worked with fire crews from the Texas Forest Service. “That sprung the door open,” Morlock said. “This wasn’t just a Big Bend resource but a national resource. And it just expanded from there.” For two decades, the Diablos have worked as Big Bend’s dedicated firefighting crew, becoming an example of mutual dependence in a difficult place. “The firefighters need the park to provide meaningful work; the park depends on the firefighters to accomplish the goals of the fire-management program,” Tom VandenBerg, Big Bend’s chief of interpretation and visitor services, said. He called the Diablos program an “overwhelming success” and “an example of cross-border cooperation at its best.” Even so, the program is subject to immigration debates happening thousands of miles away. As politicians from both parties talk about hardening the border, a program based in the idea of mutual dependence sometimes seems like a relic from another era—and it’s increasingly unclear how long it can hold on in this one.

Mexico’s proximity to Big Bend has been seen by park officials as both a resource and a problem. In the nineteen-seventies, the area’s “outlaw, bandido, and cowboy image” drew visitors to the park, according to a longtime employee, even as rangers struggled to curtail drug smuggling and livestock trespassing. Around the same time, Big Bend’s relationship with its Mexican neighbors was badly damaged by Joe Carithers, a park superintendent whom former colleagues remembered as “paranoid” and too fearful to travel into Mexico, and who reportedly kept a cache of grenades and semi-automatic weapons, believing that “revolution was imminent.” (Carithers left the park service after getting in trouble for shooting at Mexican livestock herders.)

The relationship had improved by the nineties, when the park had its first Hispanic superintendent, and the Diablos program was part of the thaw. There was a regular flow across the border at Boquillas, the largest and most accessible of the Big Bend border towns. (“Largest” is a relative term: the population of Boquillas is around three hundred.) American tourists crossed into Mexico for tacos and beer at José Falcon’s restaurant and bar—the aptly named Falcons—where a broad concrete patio overlooked a bend in the river, and Mexican residents crossed through the park to buy ice, pick up mail, or run various other errands. People could cross in both directions without presenting a passport. Lilia Falcon, José’s daughter, remembered her mother crossing the border with a pocket full of quarters for the pay phone in the park, since regular phone service wasn’t available in Boquillas. Although the town now has solar electricity and sporadic Wi-Fi, in many ways it remains cut off from the rest of Mexico. I recently accompanied Chalo Díaz, Boquillas’s top administrator, on the journey to Múzquiz, the nearest sizable town in Mexico, where residents travel if they want to buy gasoline, go to the doctor, or purchase groceries. Getting there took three hours—first, a teeth-rattling forty-mile drive on a rutted dirt road, then a long journey over a mountain pass. Along the way, Diaz pointed out abandoned structures, including a roofless former restaurant and a house where an elderly couple used to live with their goats. For more than an hour, we didn’t pass another car.

On my most recent visit to Boquillas, in December, Adrian Valdez, a Diablo crew boss, invited me over for dinner. The town quiets down quickly after the tourists leave—the Border Patrol crossing closes at four in the winter—although our conversation was occasionally interrupted by the braying of a donkey. Valdez told me that he’d spent much of his early life working with tourists. His father used to sing as he rowed visitors across the Rio Grande in a small metal boat. Valdez was seven the first time he helped, using a sawed-off paddle; by the time he was ten he could row the boat on his own. He picked up English from peddling chunks of fluorite and calcite to tourists. His family regularly crossed into the U.S. to go shopping; he remembered ogling toys in the stores. In his twenties, Valdez became a Diablo—for the money, which was substantially more than any other job available in Boquillas paid, but also for the novelty of the work.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government closed many informal border crossings, including the one at Boquillas. Entering the U.S. from Boquillas now required a more-than-five-hour trip to the nearest port of entry. With tourist traffic cut off, the town withered. “This went dead,” Lilia Falcon told me, waving her hand at the restaurant her father had built. “My mom stayed here to see if it would open again. And I said, ‘No, Mom, it’s not.’ ” (José had died the year before.) Lilia moved to the U.S. to work at a meatpacking plant in Kansas. “I just started again,” she told me.

With Boquillas “like a ghost town,” Valdez said, he began processing candelilla, a shrub native to the Chihuahuan desert, whose leaves, when distilled, produce a waxy substance used in cosmetics. The job was hot and hard, and paid much less than firefighting. Then, in 2002, the West had another bad fire year. “They had firefighters coming from Russia and Canada and New Zealand,” Morlock said. “Everybody was trying to save California that year.” Meanwhile, as part of the sprawling bureaucratic apparatus of the U.S. war on terror, the responsibilities of the I.N.S. were passed along to an assortment of agencies under the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. “I went to C.B.P. with park staff, my superintendent, and my chief ranger and said, ‘If you’re letting in firefighters from other countries, why won’t you let me bring the Diablos across? It’s a good-neighbor thing. We’re saving people’s lives, saving people’s homes,’ ” Morlock said. After what he calls “a big go-around,” he got authorization for the Diablos to start crossing the border again.

Valdez rattled off the places he’d fought wildfires: California, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico. The more than thirty Diablos often work in protected areas—Yosemite National Park, in California, and Bandelier National Monument, in New Mexico—where federal restrictions mean that a fire line must be dug using hand tools rather than heavy machinery. If a fire was somewhere remote, the crew camped out as part of a makeshift tent city of emergency responders. The food, Valdez insisted, was pretty good, even when it was M.R.E.s—or, at least, it seemed to taste good, since he’d be exhausted. The crews have also provided assistance in Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina; New York, after Sandy; the U.S. Virgin Islands, after Maria; and Florida, after Ian. “I know lots of parts of the U.S. more than Mexico,” Valdez said. An unexpected aspect of the job has been learning how to drive in cities—in Salt Lake City, he told me, with mingled wonder and horror, it had taken two hours just to drive across town.

The Boquillas border crossing finally reopened, in 2013, as a more formal outpost. Americans could now cross during set hours; to return they had to present their passports and interview with a D.H.S. agent remotely, via video conference. With the resumption of tourist traffic, Boquillas perked up. During the high season, in winter, the patio at Falcons is crowded with tourists, and the main road in town is lined with small shops selling embroidered aprons and wire sculptures of scorpions. In the era of enhanced border security, though, the traffic is largely one-way—Mexican nationals without a visa are not permitted to cross into the U.S. at Boquillas. The Diablos were no exception: their work authorizations allowed them to come into the U.S., but only when they were on a job. “If you need to go to the bank, get fuel, groceries, you couldn’t go,” Valdez explained.

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