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Mexican fire crew joins the fight

FiresDisasters and AccidentsWildfiresMexicoIllegal ImmigrantsMinority Groups

DULZURA, Calif. — They were on their way back to Jamul, weary from dousing a flare-up along winding California 94.

"Stop!" a captain yelled to his fellow firefighters. "I think I see a body."

The engines in the caravan quickly reversed a couple of hundred yards, stopping near the intersection with Barrett Lake Road, said crew member Rodrigo Santana.

Face down, just off the side of the road, was a Latino man wearing a backpack. Obviously a migrant, his body was charred. He was dead, stopped in his tracks by advancing wildfires and thick smoke.

To these crews, the man was more than a casualty. He was a countryman.

Santana and his fellow crew members are bomberos from Tijuana, Mexico, among the first contingent of firefighters to come north to fight a major blaze. The team of about 40 is assigned to the Harris fire, near the border in San Diego County.

Their grim discovery Thursday was an eerie reminder of what others in their country are willing to risk for a new life in the U.S.

"It's the consequences of the United States being a First World country and that Mexico is not," Santana said Friday. "It's sad."

"He's not the first one and he's not going to be the last one that is going to be found," fellow bombero Jose Manuel Villarreal Salgado recalled thinking.

Sure enough, three other bodies, all believed to be those of illegal immigrants, were found by the U.S. Border Patrol farther down the road.

Of course, Salgado and Santana said, they had seen many dead bodies before, but it was strange to find one in the United States.

Both men grimaced slightly as they discussed their discovery. But each expressed different views of who was to blame -- Salgado pointed to the Mexican government, Santana to the U.S.

"It's a Mexican problem because they cannot provide stable jobs and good wages for the workers," Salgado said. "Mexico has the capacity to help and they don't. Government officials just stuff their pockets with our money."

"I'm disappointed in the Mexican government. It's difficult to see a Mexican die, trying to have a better life in another country," Salgado said. "It's sad. It's sad."

Of the migrants, Salgado said, "My opinion is that they have the knowledge of the risks they are taking."

Santana argued that Americans profit on the backs of Latino laborers. But the Mexicans, he said, do not always benefit; they cannot always send enough money back to their families.

Just in the process of getting here, many pay with their lives, often in the heat of the Arizona desert. The blazes are just another cruel way to go, Santana said.

All told in the recent wildfires, seven immigrants have been found dead not far from the border. At the University of San Diego Regional Burn Center, at least 14 are being treated for burns.

Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said it was "inevitable" that more bodies would be found.

On Wednesday, before the bomberos encountered the body, one of the crew from Tijuana discussed his fears for his migrant countrymen.

"We worry about them and it pains us," said Juan Carlos Mendoza, "because they're Mexicans and they're one of us."

Being in the U.S., however, has inspired other, more positive emotions.

Many bomberos said they were proud to offer aid to struggling American firefighters.

At lunch Friday, they shared machaca burritos with scrambled eggs and beef with their California counterparts battling the blaze around Jamul.

"There isn't a difference between the firefighters here or on that side of the border," said 30-year-old bombero Jorge Villegas. "We're all hermanos," brothers.

With Spanish words and small Mexican flags on their fire engines, the crew has attracted the attention and appreciation of U.S. firefighters, despite little time for conversation.

"We don't even know the people, but they're like a brother or sister," said 40-year-old Dan Regis of the Miramar Fire Department. He was in the middle of two 24-hour shifts, trying to stem the fire's northeastern progression. "Worldwide, we're all firefighters no matter what," he said.

Firefighter Mario Alberto Vasquez-Herrera of Tijuana agreed.

"We're very excited that we can be here to help the United States and the firemen here; it's a great experience," Vasquez-Herrera said, minutes before hopping on the back of a fire engine to put out another small blaze.

California fire officials say the bomberos' visit is of both practical and historic value.

"This is the first time in my 32 years [of experience] that they have come across to help, and boy, did we need the help," said San Miguel Fire Chief August F. Ghio. "For me it represents that there are no borders when something like a fire or a catastrophic natural event happens."

ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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