Photo by Matthew Rice via flickr.com
Story by Cassidy Jones
LONG BEACH, Calif. — As California’s fire season continues to blaze through miles of homes and forestry, leaving over 2,100 structures destroyed and more than 309,000 acres charred since October, two firefighters notice that something else is nowhere to be seen, amiss.
“We were the only Hispanics anywhere we went,” said Soto, an EMT firefighter. “And we were treated differently because of it.”
Soto and his Guatemalan-American co-worker, nicknamed K.A., have found it daunting to battle flames of fury across California while brushing off what they see as “small town mentality” in form of “wetback” name-calls and “lazy Mexican” jokes from other workers. They often find their mistakes magnified by management and have to work harder than most, the firefighters said.
“Firefighting is all about trusting the men you are working with, knowing that they’ll risk their own lives to save yours,” Soto said. “How am I supposed to trust people who are making such racial remarks?”
The wildland firefighter explained that even though his employer, the U.S. Forest Service, is aggressively branching out to boost diversity, there still seems to be a hostile work environment that surrounds him and the sparse Latino firefighters when they show up to battle erupting flames and meet new co-workers.
Soto and K.A., both Long Beach residents, are using alternative names for fear of retaliation. Ethnic diversity within Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service is still lacking, the departments admit. And numbers bare no resemblance to the state’s Latino-strong population.
Latinos make up California’s largest ethnic group, but of the state’s estimated 31,000 firefighters, only 21 percent are Latino, while whites make up 68 percent of the force, 2006-2010 American Community Survey (ACS) data shows. Meanwhile, African-Americans and Asians together make up about 8 percent.
“We want diversity,” said Cal Fire’s spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff. “It’s just difficult to find people that are willing to do this type of job.”
Over recent years, Cal Fire has broadened recruitment goals by sending out bilingual representatives to inform more people about wildland firefighting. Tolmachoff said nothing is preventing people of minority groups from being hired.
“Cal Fire is becoming extremely diverse,” Tolmachoff said. “Most of its culture stems from a large and growing Hispanic representation.”
However, nationwide data tells a different story. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, Latino firefighters have grown only 6 percentage points over roughly the last three decades.
Other fire departments have felt the heat to recruit people of color, especially departments located in rural or forest areas siloed from more diverse, urban centers.
“There’s a lot of focus in this area for a reason,” said Philip DeSenze, the active district ranger for Sequoia’s U.S. Forest Service. “It is an issue.”
Within his region, DeSenze recognizes the retention of an “old school mentality” in rural areas, finding that the integration of different cultures into some fire crews to be challenging.
“A big part of the job is the culture shock, for everyone,” Stanislaus’ U.S. Forest Civil Rights Officer Wytosha S. Coney said. “You have so many cultural backgrounds coming together, it’s all about learning to be more accepting.”
Racial harassment, especially if done repeatedly, may qualify as workplace harassment under federal law. DeSenze said departments should have zero tolerance policies and proper training to foster a “21st century” environment. Yet, one source of the hiring gap may be some departments’ recruitment habits.
Brett Skaggs, a fire and aviation manager with the U.S. Forest Service, said that a town’s makeup often shapes the diversity in their region’s fire crew since candidates are recruited by word-of-mouth or through local high schools.
The U. S. Forest Service has provided many resources to recruit diverse candidates, with the biggest focus on Women in Wildland, a combination of training camps and classes designed to promote women leaders, Coney said.
The effort follows the even smaller gender representation in the industry. There are 1,185 female firefighters working in California compared to more than 30,000 men, ACS data shows. Only 165 are Latinas.
Should workplace problems arise, Coney said that their Employee Assistance Program allows all employees to voice concerns with confidentiality. An Equal Opportunity Employer outreach database also promotes a civil rights program in the U.S. Forest Service.
However, for some Latino firefighters, the pace of progress has been far too slow.
Soto and his fellow EMT firefighter K.A. took their first wildland rotation in August, assisting with Cal Fire efforts and the Stanislaus Forest Department. Four months, a few blazes, and too many name-calls later, they still felt alienated and found other Latino firefighters sharing similar sentiments.
They mentioned being ignored or left out of conversation at work. When they made minor mistakes, crew bosses deemed them as incompetent, rather than teach them, the duo said. Other firefighters even withheld speaking Spanish in order to protect themselves from racial harassment.
“It doesn’t make sense to have to lose a piece of your culture in order for others to treat you equally,” K.A. said.
“You can feel the difference between harmless jokes and when someone really means it… They wanted us out of there,” K.A. added.
In light of the frustration, some firefighters have huddled together to form their own “crews” such as the fire crew out of Sequoia Forest called the Scorpions.
“Out of the 20 crews we have working in Sequoia, three of them are made up of only Hispanics,” Skaggs said. “The crews are family-oriented and are surrounded by very diverse local communities.”
The Cobras, Scorpions and Black Eagles are known in the Sequoia Forest for their hard work ethic, expert knowledge in wildland firefighting and, of course, their extreme amount of diversity having been recruited by word-of-mouth, Skaggs added.
“I believe in a couple years, things will get better,” Soto said. “With crews like the Scorpions growing, more diversity will start to come in.”
Both Long Beach firefighters Soto and K.A. plan to continue their fire careers with the U.S. Forest Service during the 2018 fire season and hope that conversations about these issues will provoke an even larger impact.
“There are still some racists around,” K.A. said. “Things are going to move slow, little by little, but I think eventually things will change.”