BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Tex. — There are places in the desert canyons of far West Texas where the border between the United States and Mexico amounts to an olive-green ribbon of water, so shallow that canoes scrape to a halt on the rocks. Here the Rio Grande — the border that has separated the two countries since 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — narrows to a pinch. At times it is as wide as a school bus is long. At other times it is not even that wide. An owl can make the crossing with one or two flaps of its wings.
In these remote places in Big Bend National Park, the Rio Grande seems void of any power to divide. There are no boundary lines, no signs, no walls, no border agents on either side. To journey here to the vast, empty canyons of West Texas is to watch the border itself all but vanish as a physical and political space, an extraordinary feat in these times when the notion of the border often seems more a political construct than a geographic one.
Consider Los Diablos and the cane burns of the Rio Grande that played out this month. Los Diablos are a team of Mexican firefighters who are part of a group of Mexicans and Americans including firefighters, conservationists and park rangers. They travel along the most desolate stretches of the river not to put out fires, but to set them in a controlled burn meticulously planned to kill giant cane, a tall bamboo-style invasive grass that grows in dense patches on both sides of the river. The cane chokes and helps narrow the flow of the Rio Grande, which contributes to the frequency of flooding and to the burying of habitats for native plants and fish.
And while the firefighters cleared the riverbanks, it felt as if for a few days they cut through the political clutter surrounding border politics as well. Instead of the politics of immigration laws, drug smuggling and Donald J. Trump’s wall, the border became an elemental place of earth, water and fire, where Americans and Mexicans actually got things done together.
I spent three days and two nights watching the cane burn on the Rio Grande, where licks of flame stretching 10 stories shoot into the air in an otherworldly landscape of limestone canyons, red-tailed hawks and village dogs and donkeys. I slept in a tent on a riverbank in Mexico, and no one asked for my passport. As smoke filled the sky, I stood behind an American firefighter on the Mexican side who made sure a Mexican firefighter on the American side across the river was safe. Borders blurred. Life went on.
Presidential politics aside, it takes binational coordination, a bilingual goat-fed crew and a total of nearly $500,000 spent over four years to weed the border. “I think when people often see things burn, they think of destruction,” said Mark Briggs, a senior program officer with the World Wildlife Fund, the nonprofit conservation group that has helped coordinate the project. “In the setting where we are, I think mostly of rejuvenation.”
Los Diablos came here to one of the biggest sections of giant cane on the American side of the river — a mile-long thicket, with many stems standing more than 15 feet tall — that has come to be called La Milpa de Diablo, or, roughly translated, the Devil’s Cornfield.
They are ranchers and construction workers from riverside Mexican villages with names like San Vicente who are trained in the United States by theNational Park Service to help fight wildfires in Texas and other states. Los Diablos are a burly, gregarious lot, who wear biker bandannas under their helmets. Some are brothers and some are cousins. None take themselves too seriously.
About an hour before La Milpa was ablaze, on a whim and a bet, they used their walkie-talkies to order chivo — goat — for the next morning’s breakfast. Two men on horseback, accompanied by four dogs, arrived on the Mexican side and handed over, just as casually as if they were delivering pizza, a freshly killed goat carcass and a stack of tortillas.
After breakfast the next day, I asked a member of Los Diablos, Jesus Galindo — a short but powerful man with a goatee whom I had watched rummage patiently through his canoe as he stood next to a wall of flame — what he thought of the chivo. It had been chopped and left to simmer in a tomato sauce for hours at the campsite. Mr. Galindo shrugged, and said he preferred it grilled.
The cane lines the river’s edge beneath canyon cliffs in sections of Big Bend that are impossible to reach by vehicle. The closest thing to a fire truck was the two-seat canoes the firefighters used. Their firehouse was a campsite on the Mexican side, where they used satellite phones but set a map at their feet, held down by stones, to plot the day’s fire. Richie Sinkovitz, 35, the burn boss trainee with the National Park Service, used a cane stalk as a pointer.
The American and Mexican fire crew — six members of Los Diablos and several Americans from the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Texas A&M Forest Service joined by an observer with Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas — shared equipment, bottles of hot sauce and tan lines on their sunburned faces marking the shape of their sunglasses.
Their after-action meetings under the stars shifted between Spanish and English, led by the bilingual Mr. Sinkovitz. The name of the river itself lost its regional identity, with some of the Americans calling it Rio Bravo, as Mexicans do. They wore the same white hard hats, cargo pants and yellow flame-resistant shirts speckled with dots of black ash. It was hard to tell them apart at a distance, just as it was hard to see, along a bend in the river, where Texas ends and Mexico begins.
“We’re all here for the same reason; be it a prescribed fire or a wildfire, it’s to keep each other safe and get the job done,’’ said Ezra Engleson, 32, who works for the land management bureau in New Mexico and served as the ignitions specialist on the project. “We’re all firefighters. It’s kind of that brotherhood of fire.”
Our odyssey began with a bumpy van ride on an unpaved road down to the river in Big Bend. We were a six-hour drive from El Paso, and there was no cellphone service. Throughout our 14-mile journey on the river, the only way to reach the cane patches and La Milpa was by canoe or hiking. In addition to Mr. Briggs with the World Wildlife Fund, one of our guides was Jeff Kelsch, who works with Rio Grande Scientific Support Services, which provides logistical support on river restoration projects.
Mr. Kelsch wore golden Elvis-style sunglasses and a cowboy hat. He is a West Texas desert hippie who paddles a canoe and smokes a cigarette simultaneously. We had life preservers in the canoes, but we did not need them. “The joke is,” Mr. Kelsch said, “if you fall off the boat, you stand up and dust yourself off.”
But the main concern was fire, not water. Cane here burns quickly and intensely, but the fires simply die out on their own, starved for fuel — vegetation — in the desert canyons. The exploding air pockets in the cane’s hollow stalks pop and crackle like eerie applause.
“It’s more like you’re at a machine-gun range,” said Ed Waldron, the Park Service’s burn boss who oversaw the operation.
By the end of the trip, the crew had burned 110 acres of giant cane in a week on the American side. The fire only wounds the plants. Workers return a few weeks later to spray the blackened sites with a herbicide.
For all the talk of devils and all the weaponry — the flare-gun-style coin launchers they pull from holsters — the firefighters were a playful, environmentally focused bunch. Much of their work was spent protecting mesquite and willow trees from the flames.
During a delay, as the fire crew waited for the wind to subside, a Diablo sat at the river’s edge, molding the figurine of a horse out of the mud. He left it by his canoe, a pottery trinket amid what would soon be ash.