Elite Mexican unit crosses the border to battle wildfires




Posted on June 3, 2012 at 10:55 PM

Updated Monday, Jun 4 at 7:12 AM

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

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GUADALUPE MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, Texas — Wildfires are burning across the southwest in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. States often call for outside help when they need extra manpower.

In one isolated region of the Southwest, an elite team of firefighters from Mexico crosses the border to lend a helping hand.

"They went up in the evening some very steep, very rugged, potentially dangerous country, and they worked through the night and through the morning,” said Dennis Vasquez, superintendent at Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas.

Authorities credit swift action by the firefighting team from Mexico for helping contain the wildfire before it spread to the visitor center, campground, and homes.

“It’s a crew that hikes in and works with hand tools and goes where bulldozers cannot go because it might be too steep, or there might not be access for one reason or another," explained David Elkowitz, fire crew leader for the Diablos during their trip to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Elkowitz is Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at Big Bend National Park, where the team known as “Los Diablos” is based.

The were born out of necessity 20 years ago to help battle wildfires in Big Bend National Park, a remote region near the Texas-Mexico border.

“It’s so remote that the nearest fire response is two days away for any large number of people,” Elkowitz said.

Local men in villages on the Mexican side of the border offered to help put out the fires in the park named for the “big bend” of the Rio Grande that cuts through this starkly beautiful but isolated region.

“If you give us some work, we promise you we’ll work like the devil,” Vasquez remembered the men saying right before the group got its name.

“We all thought that was funny, and the superintendent at the time said, 'That’s it! That’s your name. We’re going to call you los Diablos,'” Vasquez said.

At first they were limited to the Big Bend National Park; then the Southwest. But now when called, Los Diablos fight fires across the U.S.

The 32 specially trained firefighters have work visas that let them cross the border and travel to wildfires.

Eight of the original Diablos are still on the job.

“These folks work hard and keep themselves in good physical condition and continue to work on fires,” said Elkowitz, who has known many of the Diablos for more than 20 years.

But these firefighters who fearlessly put their lives on the line were concerned about being singled out in interviews. They worried the spotlight would make them targets back home along the border in Mexico, where extortion is a problem for anyone perceived to earn a good living.

Instead of interviews, the Diablos preferred to let their work speak for itself.

After the fire at Guadalupe Mountains National Park was 100 percent contained, the Diablos kept working to clear away some dry brush that has turned this area into a tinderbox. They were trying to create a protective line near some homes.

As the men walked through thick juniper and cedar trees armed with axes and a few chain saws, a squad leader — one of the original Diablos — told the others, “Let’s clear away all these dry branches.”

It’s just the beginning of wildfire season, and with hot, dry windy conditions, the Diablos expect to cross the border many more times this summer to help neighbors in need.

E-mail akocherga@belo.com