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Some Of The Firefighters Battling The Caldor Fire Are Mexican Nationals On Work Visas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Firefighters from across the country have headed to Lake Tahoe to help contain the huge blaze burning there. Their ranks include migrant workers from outside the U.S. KQED's Raquel Maria Dillon met up with a mostly Mexican crew battling the fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER CRINKLING)

MANUEL CARRILLO: Nice little sandwich in there.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON, BYLINE: At a fire base on the eastern flank of the Caldor Fire, burning just over a ridge from South Lake Tahoe, Manuel Carrillo eyes his crew's bag lunch with skepticism - cheese, trail mix, yogurt, lots of protein. But it sort of looks like an airplane meal.

CARRILLO: And you eat this every day. We eat it 14, 21 days straight. We crave a lot of home foods, a lot of warm meals, soups, beef, stews.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER CRINKLING)

DILLON: Carrillo is from California's Central Valley and just spent 28 days on the Dixie Fire. His crew of 20 men kept him going. They're mostly from Mexico, here on temporary work visas.

CARRILLO: I had to learn Spanish. And they've taught me a lot - how to work hard.

DILLON: He introduced me to Rodrigo Rangel Aguilar, who's working his third year as a wildland firefighter for a private contractor out of Salem, Ore.

(Speaking Spanish).

RODRIGO RANGEL AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: He's the second youngest of seven siblings. And three of his brothers are also working as firefighters in the U.S. right now. Two are heading here to the Caldor Fire.

AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: He doesn't know which crew they're with or where they'll be assigned on this sprawling fire, but he's hoping to track them down. Otherwise, he'll see them back home in Morelia...

AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: ...Where the only jobs are in the fields.

AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: He won't say how much he gets paid here, but entry-level contract workers on hand crews typically make about $15 or $16 an hour, plus lots of overtime. They do mostly the hard work of containment, hiking the steep hillsides to cut fire lines with hand tools. Casimiro Calvario Dominguez is lounging on a tailgate nearby. It's his first season as a firefighter. He says it's hard, but work back home in his pueblito in Guerrero is harder and pays much less.

CASIMIRO CALVARIO DOMINGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: Firefighting is tough, but the dollars he earns here support for kids, a wife and his parents.

CALVARIO DOMINGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: He uses a versatile Mexican curse word to summarize his dilemma; leave his family in order to provide for them or work himself into the ground and still not be able to feed them.

CALVARIO DOMINGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DILLON: Calvario Dominguez says this work is more relaxed. Despite the risks, he appreciates the steady work. This is the nature of fighting a major wildfire. People converge from all over the continent to do dangerous labor - contractors, pilots and thousands of workers. Carrillo, the crew's leader, says his team has learned to love the mountains of the West. He's half Mexican American, half Native American, from the Santa Inez band of Chumash Indians.

CARRILLO: I'm Mother's Earth's protector. I'm helping calm these fires down, stop them from burning, you know, our lands.

DILLON: Carrillo says his job is to lead and share his ideas and experience with his Mexican colleagues. Everyone on his crew is curious to see which will end sooner - their work visas or this ferocious fire season.

For NPR News, I'm Raquel Maria Dillon in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTOINE DUFOUR'S "LOST IN YOUR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.