Los Diablos: The Elite U.S. Firefighters from Mexico

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Jae C. Hong / AP

When fire season begins this month in the drought-ridden American West, one of the most experienced firefighter crews will hail from an unusual locale: Mexico. Based largely in the tiny Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen (population 100), across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park, Los Diablos is the only crew of its kind sponsored by the U.S. government to fight fires across some of the country's harshest terrain. "There's no other crew like them," says Bill Davis, a Texas regional fire coordinator who has worked with the Diablos for 15 years. "You have to be pretty tough and self-sufficient to survive where they're from."

In 1990, the National Park Service founded the Diablos to solve a unique problem: Big Bend's 800,000 acres were so remote that fires threatening park resources were going unchecked. "It'd take Texas firefighters a day to get here," says David Elkowitz, a park ranger who works with the Diablos, "but the Diablos are only an hour from the scene." Despite having no previous wildfire training, Boquillas' ranchers, farmers, and cowboys agreed to learn the job in exchange for the park service's standard wage – around $19 an hour. "It was an economic boost for them," Davis says. "On a couple of fires, they'd make the equivalent of a year's wage in Mexico." Quickly proving themselves on wildfires in Big Bend – "Its rocky terrain is like their backyard," says Davis – the Diablos were soon dispatched to fight fires throughout Texas, gaining a nickname and nationwide notice for battling blazes in a fire-prone state (more than 4 million acres burned there in 2011). "We promised we would work like devils," says Jerry Ureste, 52, one of the original Diablos.

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The crew now fights some of the country's fiercest, most remote fires. In June 2013, just weeks after the Yarnell Hill fire killed 19 hotshots north of Phoenix – the single largest death toll among wildland firefighters in the U.S. since 1933 – the Diablos helped stop a 500-acre blaze from engulfing the nearby town of Kearny, Arizona. A month later, they battled the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in California, the third largest wildfire in that state's history. Despite the risks, the Diablos have never suffered a casualty. "All the fires are hard," Ureste says. "It was 116 degrees at Ramsey Canyon in Arizona."

Although the Diablos regularly risk their lives for a U.S. government paycheck, the crew still isn't allowed to cross the Rio Grande without undergoing a daily background check. After being summoned across the river by car horn, the men scan their work permits with the U.S. border agency and then board a bus with the words "los diablos" stenciled in red across its sides (when flying to remote locations, they ride in planes or helicopters). Despite the inconvenience, the Diablos are perhaps the most tightly knit crew fighting wildfires in the U.S. – brothers work alongside each other in the unit. "I feel good about what we do," Ureste says. "We help the park service and help ourselves. It's a chance to make money for the future."

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