- Author: Gary Borders
The 30 men who make up Los Diablos hail from three isolated villages on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, just across the US border from Big Bend National Park. In the harsh landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert they have physically demanding day jobs as ranchers, farmers and construction workers.
That sun-hardened toughness makes Los Diablos a valuable firefighting tool in Big Bend. The team's value is even greater now, because "climate change is resulting in longer wildfire seasons and more extreme and dangerous fire conditions," explained Nicky Sundt, WWF's climate change expert and former smokejumper.
Los Diablos operates under a binational collaboration that is unique in the United States. According to Ed Waldron, a fire management officer at Big Bend National Park, no other Mexican firefighting team legally crosses to battle blazes in the US. Yet the team's work doesn't only involves battling fires started by lightning strikes or human carelessness. They also conduct controlled burns on the US side of the river, destroying the invasive giant cane choking the Rio Grande in the park. Los Diablos is part of a partnership that includes WWF, the US National Park Service, Mexico's National Commission of Protected Natural Areas, the Mexican Wildlife Protection organization (ProFauna), and Rio Grande Scientific Support Services.
Waldron, has worked with Los Diablos since 2011 and helps train them. "They are extremely important to the park," Waldron said. "We have a very small fire staff and don't have a lot of other fire resources that we can lean on."
Los Diablos' efforts are not confined to Big Bend. The crew has been dispatched to fires throughout the West and even helped recovery efforts after hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. But their greatest value has been to the 800,000-acre national park. Last March, for example, Los Diablos conducted a controlled burn that removed 60 acres of invasive plants that trap sediment and choke the Rio Grande's flow.
According to Mark Briggs, WWF conservation scientist who works closely with the partnership's groups, the team first conducts a controlled burn and then six weeks later, another team comes in to spray a herbicide that kills the cane but is safe for the river and surrounding environment.
The park service recently added a new bilingual supervisor who will work full-time with Los Diablos. "We will be able to expand the program even more," Waldron said, explaining that the need for Los Diablos is likely to increase because of climate change.
In mid-summer, only two small fires caused by lightning strikes had hit Big Bend. Yet having Los Diablos available at a moment's notice is a great asset, Waldron said. "For us to be able to have 30 firefighters at our back and call is really big," he said. "And the international cooperation goes a long way, too."