In a First, 100 Mexican Firefighters Arrive in California to Help Battle Wildfires

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Mexican firefighters arrive at San Bernardino International Airport on Wednesday, Sept. 23.  (Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

About 100 wildland firefighters from Mexico arrived in California on Wednesday to assist with firefighting efforts in Sequoia National Forest.

Members of the five crews, who hail from 22 different states across Mexico, flew into San Bernardino International Airport, where they attended a brief welcome event and orientation before heading to the front lines of the Castle Fire in Tulare County, just south of Sequoia National Park. That fire is part of the Sequoia Complex that has already charred nearly 145,000 acres since late August and remains only 35% contained.

The U.S. Forest Service and CONAFOR, its Mexican equivalent, have long participated in joint training programs. But have never had this many firefighters from Mexico come to the U.S. to assist in suppression efforts, according to Julissa Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. The crews will work on the fire for at least 14 days, she said.

The Mexican crews were requested through the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates with foreign wildfire agencies during particularly overwhelming fire seasons.

The group of 101 Mexican firefighters attending a brief training course on Sept. 23, 2020 before heading to the Fire near Sequoia National Park. (Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

“Fires do not have borders, fires do not have different languages and cultures,” said Eduardo Cruz, director of CONAFOR, during Wednesday’s reception. “In the end we all speak the same language when it comes to fighting fire.”

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Cruz, whose firefighters will work alongside U.S Forest Service crews as part of a partnership with that agency, noted that early in his career he had spent a season as a helideck firefighter in Sequoia National Forest as part of a training and exchange program.

“I am very excited for this unique opportunity to visit a station I worked and trained at as a young man and to bring with me firefighters from Mexico to aid in the California firefighting effort,” he said.

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CONAFOR is able to spare the crews because there are currently very few active fires in Mexico, where the summer and early fall mark the rainy season in most of the country, the agency said.

Despite the sometimes prickly relations between the U.S. and Mexico under the Trump administration, the additional assistance from south of the border has been welcomed with open arms by U.S. fire management agencies, whose resources are stretched to the limit this year, with massive blazes up and down the West Coast.

“We're proud to have them here, and thank you for coming to help us," USFS Deputy Regional Forester Tony Scardina said in welcome video on Twitter, noting "the unprecedented fire situation.”

In California alone, crews are currently battling 26 major wildfires, with over 18,200 firefighters on the front lines, including crews from Canada and the U.S. National Guard. Since the beginning of the year, more than 8,000 wildfires have burned over 3.6 million acres across the state — an area larger than Connecticut.

“This opportunity, to see 100 firefighters from Mexico, the country where I was born and I identify [with], come to support the U.S., the country where I live and love — this is a wonderful story of collaboration and partnership,” Gonzalez said.