When wildfires erupt, Malheur County farmworkers shift to fire team duty

Snake River Valley crew No. 14 spent a few weeks this summer fighting wildfires in Alaska. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

VALE – For over 50 years, farmworkers in the Treasure Valley have moonlighted as firefighters. 

They’ve done so as part of the BLM’s Snake River Valley Fire Crew. 

The program was born in Vale in 1964 after a particularly rough fire season the year before left the agency in need of a greater number of organized crews. The agency turned to a resource that was widely available in the 1960s: farmworkers. 

“The program started because those groups were already working together in the fields – there was already that unity,” said Tom Cuellar, Snake River Valley Crew coordinator.  

Much like a fire crew, the farmworkers had an inherent structure and leadership, Cuellar said, which made it easier for them to be trained to fight fires together. 

Back then, there were up to 68 such crews in the Snake River program. The crews were nearly 100% Hispanic. 

Today there are seven crews. The program benefited from the massive workforce available in the Treasure Valley, but as machinery began replacing farmworkers, the crews dwindled, Cuellar explained. Up until the 1990s there were still around 25-28 crews. 

Training for the program is done in both English and Spanish. The crews are Type 2-IA (initial attack) handcrews. They’re tasked with evaluating fires and creating firelines that contain wildfires and prevent them from spreading. 

Those first members passed on the torch. Many families work together on the same crews or have parents and grandparents who retired from the program.

Roy Castro from Nyssa is a foreman at an onion packing shed, but during fire season he’s the crew boss for Crew No. 1. His grandfather and father were both Snake River Valley crew members. Castro’s brother, Ray, as well as his sister, Jessica, are also on crews.

Castro’s father ran Crew 27 for many years before retiring. Jessica is now training to become a crew boss so she can resurrect her dad’s crew number. 

There are crew bosses who have wives and children working in their crew.

Mario Gramajo, 18, was on his first summer with the program this season. Soon, he’ll be a freshman at Treasure Valley Community College. He wants to become an engineer and working summers with the program will help pay his way through school. 

“I wanted to see how my dad earns his money and what kinds of sacrifices he makes,” Gramajo said. His father, who has worked for years as a crew member, gave up his spot on a recent trip to fight fire in Alaska so that his son could go.


The program is smaller than it used to be. Apart from a reduction in farmworkers, new rules that call for bilingual squad bosses, in addition to a bilingual crew boss, have weeded out experienced leaders who couldn’t pass the language test. Others fail the physical test that became more demanding over the years.

Tom Cuellar, coordinator for the Snake River Valley fire crew, talks to one of the crews before they head out to a wildfire in Alaska in July. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

Despite the changes, Cuellar said the program remains as popular as ever. He said he hears from farmers who struggle to find farmworkers each year. Cuellar said they ask him if the program has run into the same issue. It has not. 

Fighting fires is more lucrative than farm labor. The starting pay is $18.68 an hour, $7 more than the typical hourly wage of a farmworker. But it’s more than just the money that keeps people interested. 

The crews’ reputation precedes them, according to Cuellar.  

“They hang their hat on tradition and hard work,” he said. During fire season, farmers know that their employees who are also crew members are on call and could be sent to fight fires. 

When he’s not fighting fires, Pastor Ramos, 52, works at a nursery. 

Francisco Martinez, a squad boss, has worked with the crew since 1997. He said his kids would brag at school, telling their classmates, “My dad puts out fires.”

There are many companies that hire private contract Type 2-IA fire crews, said Cuellar, but what makes the Snake River Valley crew different is that they’re sponsored by a government agency.

“They’re a national resource. They can go anywhere,” Cuellar said.

Snake River Valley crews have been sent all over the country. The crew was recognized for its help with debris recovery after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated mid-flight in 2003. The program has also collaborated with Mexico’s National Forestry Commission. Officials from that program have helped provide Spanish-language training at Vale’s BLM, while in turn picking up strategies from the program. 

This summer, most of the work focused on wildfires that have ravaged the Alaskan tundra. Going to far flung places is one of the draws for some crew members like Anthony Lopez, 19, who works in welding and part-time at Wal-Mart. 

“It takes you places you wouldn’t normally go to and we’re helping people,” Lopez said.

Vicki Ramirez, resource assistant, has worked with the program for 28 years. She said the crews are tight knit. 

“It’s like a family,” Ramirez said. She’s watched as crew members’ kids grow up and turn to fighting fires themselves. The stories, she said, are many.

The conference room at the program’s office located at the BLM Vale District Office bears a name: Luis Rodriguez. 

Rodriguez, from Nyssa, is the only fatality in the Snake River Valley Crew’s 55-year history. In 1970 he was working as a crew boss at a fire in Grants Pass when he saw a tree falling toward his crew members. Rodriguez took the blow. He was 32. His son Armando now works at the Snake River Valley office. 

Despite the dangers, crew members tend to stick around for years, said Cuellar.

Like Misael Nuñez, 54, who’s spent 22 years as a Snake River Valley crew member. When will he retire? 

“Un dia que ya no pueda,” he said. “A day when I can no longer do it.”  

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377

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