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Discontinued Training Materials For Spanish-Speaking Firefighters Ignites Outcry

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fires have been raging in much of that in much of the Western United States this summer. Critics say a policy change is making it harder to fight those fires. Many wildfire crews are made up of Spanish-speaking firefighters. That's why a decade ago, the government created firefighting training manuals in Spanish. But recently, those manuals were discontinued. Oregon Public Broadcasting's Emily Cureton reports.

EMILY CURETON, BYLINE: Oscar Miranda spends about a hundred nights a year in a tent.

OSCAR MIRANDA: Mi casa. This is my tent right here.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENT UNZIPPING)

MIRANDA: I have a little cot, so I don't sleep on the ground.

CURETON: Miranda has been a wild land firefighter his entire adult life. At 34, he's the boss of a crew that hikes into forests too steep and dangerous for fire engines to reach, and most of them speak Spanish.

MIRANDA: When I do my briefings, I have to give them bilingual. I know who I can talk to in Spanish, and I know who I can talk to in English.

CURETON: Miranda's career started around the time the government developed bilingual certifications for crew bosses like him and training courses in Spanish for the rank-and-file firefighters he supervises. But two years ago, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group stopped offering course materials in Spanish. It said they were out of date, and there wasn't enough demand to redo the translations, but private contractors who fight fires disagree.

DILLON SANDERS: We're like, what the hell? This is a safety issue.

CURETON: Dillon Sanders heads the Oregon Firefighting Contractors Association. He says the end of Spanish language courses blindsided them.

SANDERS: We didn't - we weren't notified. We went to order the material, and it wasn't available.

CURETON: And firefighting instructors say these materials are essential. Jaime Pickering works for MQ Franco, one of the largest Hispanic-owned contractors in the Northwest. He trains about 500 new firefighters every year, the vast majority Spanish-speaking.

JAIME PICKERING: So we're having to resort back to electronics and doing the best we can.

CURETON: That means relying on the outdated manuals and even Google Translate.

PICKERING: The guys, they get the gist of it, but, you know, they'll laugh and they'll chuckle. And they'll be like, you know, this actually says...

CURETON: In fact, one of the most important firefighting texts, the "Incident Response Pocket Guide," has never been translated. Pickering says this can have real-world consequences.

PICKERING: And so you're delaying us a good 10, 15 minutes out on the line from getting out of a bad situation while we're trying to explain to people what's going on.

AURELIO LEDESMA: (Speaking Spanish).

CURETON: Firefighter Aurelio Ledesma works on a pine tree plantation in the off-season.

LEDESMA: (Speaking Spanish).

CURETON: When he's fighting fires, he has to rely on crew boss Oscar Miranda to translate operational briefings and safety messages each day. When a fire threatened hundreds of homes recently in southern Oregon, the crew drove toward the fire past a flurry of handmade posters stapled to nearly every utility pole and driveway gate. Miranda described what they said.

MIRANDA: Gracias, firefighters. (Speaking Spanish).

CURETON: All the signs had the same message for the crew, but delivered in English - thank you, firefighters. For NPR News, I'm Emily Cureton in Bend, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.