Monday, July 24, 2006


After a quarter century of Reaganism and post-Reaganism, I should expect corner-cutting in everything the federal government does, in the name of the holy sacrament of privatization -- but I wasn't aware until now that wildfires in forests are regularly fought by underpaid and poorly trained illegal immigrants, essentially per U.S. government policy:

...Since the government began cutting back funding for firefighting responsibilities, private contractors have charged in to fill the gap. Seventy-five percent of contract firefighting crews in the United States now come from the Pacific Northwest, and most of them are Latino....

Most of the firefighters earn between $10 and $15 an hour -- that's cheaper than government employees....

This spring, a federal audit sharply criticized the Forest Service for "chronic mismanagement" of Latino crews. The report said there was "no assurance that the firefighters were properly qualified and trained, or even if they are in the U.S. legally."

Safety concerns were high on the list of problems identified by the inspector general for the United States Forest Service. Using immigrant firefighters raises the important issue of language and communication. Understanding orders and warnings can be crucial on the fire line, and basic communication has sometimes been a problem...

That's stor, which ABC ran yesterday, just scratches the surface. There's more information in this Sacramento Bee article from May:

...Public records offer a glimpse of what crew inspectors have documented: underage workers, counterfeit IDs, falsified training records, a van roll-over, broken and dangerous tools, even a firefighter with only one lung who "went into convulsions ... and was having difficulty breathing," as one federal inspector in Washington put it.

...corners are cut. Some are spelled out in reports that ... federal and state officials prepare, including these excerpts from 2003, 2004 and 2005:

"Lots of tools but most were very beat up and some were unusable ... ." "The company and its crews have been out of compliance in so many ways it is ridiculous ... ." "Victor is only 20 years old which means he started at age 12 ... ." "Arturo went out and purchased a fake INS card and false birth certificate ... ." "Crew had to haul gas and hand tools in van (and) had been getting headaches from the fumes." ...

This is happening because of budget cuts -- but wouldn't you know it, the private contractors seem to be doing just fine:

...What's drawing contractors to firefighting is the chance to earn big money. A 20-man crew of firefighters can bring a contractor $7,000 a day, including overtime. Crew wages make up about $4,800 of that - an average of $15 an hour for a 16-hour day.

"This is a big money item," said Gavenas. "There is an incentive to get your crews on the fire line." ...

And there's more money to be made when you can pay your workers even less. Or train them less. Or let them work injured:

... Emilio Morales Donis, a native of Guatemala, said he was injured in [a controlled] burn in the Rockies in 2002.

..."I was working on a fire line. A log I was lifting slipped. It landed on my wrist, pinning it to the ground," he said. Wrenching his hand free, Morales said he approached his foreman. His wrist was throbbing.

"He told me, 'Hurry up. We have to finish this area,' " Morales recounted. Despite the pain, Morales complied, working one-handed. There was no aspirin, not even a Band-Aid. "In the mountains we didn't even carry a first-aid kit," he said.

Asked last week if he had any training, Morales said no. "We learned on our own," he said. "You figure out how to do the job as time goes by."...

You know, I stick up for illegal workers on this blog, because I think they're being blamed for an economic order they didn't create. But the system is broken -- it's a race-to-the-bottom system with regard to wages and a rich-get-richer system overall. And obviously no job is immune.

In the ABC story, someone says of the illegal firefighters,

"When million-dollar homes are being threatened, I doubt those people [owners] care who is fighting the fire."

Well, yes and no. I bet they want their houses saved by highly trained professionals. And I bet they also want all illegals banished from the country. And, oh yes, their tax cuts.

Sorry -- it appears you can't have all three.

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