Fire Crew Bosses Who Can't Speak Spanish Can Lose Jobs

Oregon Begins To Strictly Enforce Language Rule

With 24 major wildfires burning across the southwestern United States, fire officials need every firefighter they can get. They've done that in Oregon, but it's created another problem.

Officials are now having to lay off some of the bosses who manage those firefighting crews because the bosses are not bilingual. Many of the newer hires in Oregon only speak Spanish.

"What we do know is 85 percent of the crew makeup is of Hispanic descent," said Jim Walker, with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

The state said all bosses must speak the same language of their crew on the fire lines for safety reasons. They want to make sure that the leader of the crews can quickly communicate during an emergencey if the fire turns or if there is another problem on the fire lines.

"Our main concern is that they are safe, and they are in a safe environment, and a lot of that deals with communication," Walker said.

Because of the state's language requirement, Jaime Pickering can no longer work as a crew boss and supervise 20 firefighters. He can only manage a squad of four firefighters.

"If you have one Spanish guy on the crew, as an English crew boss, you can no longer be a crew boss. You have to step back to a squad boss, which is a demotion," Pickering said.

The state of Oregon actually made the change in 2003, after a devastating wildfire season in 2002 had contractors scrambling to find help. The state just started strictly monitoring the law this year, as Hispanics continued to fill fire lines.

"I think the (rule) is good, because that's for safety purpose," said Manuel Franco, who is a contractor for fire crews. He thinks the state's rule is necessary for worker safety.

"If there's a rock rolling down, everybody should understand that," Franco said.

But he does wish it were different.

"We're living here. We should speak the language," he said.

So why couldn't the state require that these crew members speak English? The state doesn't have a clear answer.

"If it comes down to a safety issue, and it's determined that's the only way we can have people safely on an incident, then yes," Walker said.