By Friday morning, the fires had mostly subsided. More than 1,700 acres of sacred national park ground had been burned to a crispy black char. The wildfire, which started Monday afternoon around 4:45 p.m., was ignited by a downed power line that fell in high winds, which park officials said exceeded 30 mph. An estimated 400 families living in Chisos Basin, Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village lost power in the windstorm, which since has been returned.
“We initially fought the fire with park crews, park employees,” said David Elkowitz, Big Bend National Park’s public information officer, who has more than 30 years experience fighting wild fires. “We had a park engine and a park crew that included both park rangers and folks from the Los Diablos Fire Crew in Mexico.”
The members of Los Diablos are all Mexican nationals who have been assisting national park rangers for more than two decades, a unique cross-border partnership that has survived increased border security and the reduced flow of people between Mexico and Texas. The group’s somewhat hellish name comes from a willingness to “fight fires like devils.” Los Diablos has its own page on the National Park’s website. When I first heard about Los Diablos, I pictured in my mind the most selfless and fearless men that Mexico has to offer, battling infernos on the steep slopes of the Chisos Mountains. I made it my mission to find Los Diablos, whose members this week were fighting fire in a deep smokey pocket blind to the human eye.
First, I met Brent Wofferdin, deputy fire management officer for the Inner Mountain Region, as he was walking along a scorched area, a shovel and large radio in hand.
“This time of year we don’t have a lot of fire folks on staff right now,” he said.
Wofferdin’s day job usually consists of sitting behind a desk at a computer or filing paperwork, but the fire’s outbreak drew him out of the office to the fire fighting line.
“They needed help,” he said. “It helps us to be connected. Most of us at the regional office are still qualified to help. It remind us what work is really like, rather than being in the office. I’d rather be here.”
Elevation in topography plays a big role in wildland fires. The other side of the basin, where pine trees are more common, meant more fuel for fire and the rise in elevation offered room for the fire to spread.
“If this fire would have been five miles over up in the higher Chisos we would have been double, triple, quadruple sized in crew.” Wofferdin said.
Smoke bellowed from the inner hills of the Chisos basin as helicopters towing big buckets hovered overhead and doused the hot ground with water. I received word that additional firefighters arrived from the U.S Department of Indian Affairs– New Mexico’s Zuni Tribe. Along with Los Diablos and local park employees, the crews continued to extinguish and dig out flames that were still dangerous, but hidden by the smoke.
As the afternoon light dissipated and evening set in, I headed back toward the firelines, hoping for some sign of Los Diablos. The fire was nearly out by now, and I felt loss without the rising smoke or burning ground vegetation to orient me.
On the road I spotted Park Ranger vehicles, Zuni Hotshot utility vehicles, and a Los Diablos bus, all empty, awaiting the return of their crews from the nearby mountain basin. I waited patiently until Park Ranger Jorgé Martinez pointed far off into the distance and said “That’s them, right there.”
Members of Los Diablos were silent as they walked by, making no noise other than kicking the char and rubble from their heavy black boots. The men were exhausted and eager to unload their gear, but confident they had bested the fire. One by one, the men loaded chainsaws, shovels, and heavy bags into the back of their branded bus and then made their way into the cabin. These men were not what I had imagined. They were much more. Quiet heroes who work without praise, invisible to most in the state, willing to risk their lives on land that isn’t theirs, content to remain anonymous in their own country where no one wants to risk standing out.
After Los Diablos had left, the Zuni Hotshots appeared, making their way down the same path trod by the Mexican crews. Their group was bigger and more diverse, including teenagers and women, all wielding shovels and chainsaws. They walked with a more relaxed demeanor — tiny echoes of laughter and banter accompanying them in the distance as I watched.
“What newspaper do you work for?” I heard one call out as I walked aside the straight line of workers down Gano Springs Road, the crew enjoying the attention, unlike Los Diablos.
Following a full day’s work from all parties, real progress had been made. From my perspective, it looked like the fire was almost completely controlled and extinguished, allowing crews a night off from duty. Big Bend is Texas’ signature national park. The people protecting it were largely not from Texas. They came from Mexico and New Mexico, our neighbors. You can learn a lot from people just by watching and observing the way they carry themselves with their fellow workers and their friends, the people they trust, their crew. They deserve recognition they do not get. For now, their reward is a night off and a slimmed down crew on weekend duty. If the wind from the West picks back up, however, the fires could flare and they will be called back. They know that and they are ready.