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By Miriam Raftery

January 1, 2009 (San Diego's East County)--For better or worse, these are the East County people who made headlines in 2008.  Some are famous--elected officials and sports stars.  Others are unsung heroes and ordinary citizens who found themselves in extraordinary situations, battling foes ranging from cancer to large-scale developments in their communities.  Some have aspired to amazing feats, such as a young paraplegic athlete striving to join an Antarctic expedition.  We've included heroes with heartwarming tales--and a few local leaders who made headlines for less-than-heroic deeds. 

We've honored our top three choices with separate stories below, then listed other worthy candidates in  an "honorable mentions" story.

We hope you'll enjoy our New Year's "Newsmakers" special edition--and pass it along to your friends.


Donna Tisdale is a backcountry planning board chair in Boulevard who has led
the battle against Sunrise Powerlink, made the documentary, ahd been
involved in many other major issues this year including the proposed wind

It's seemingly impossible to watch TV news or read about any backcountry land use issue in newspapers these days without seeing Donna Tisdale. A retired rancher, she's found herself in the eye of the storm--battling an array of massive projects seeking to locate in or near her small, rural town.

 "This is the industrialization of rural America," she said of Sempra Energy's effort to march Sunrise Powerlink towers carrying high voltage power lines through her community.  Critics have accused her of NIMBYism--a "not in my backyard" attitude.  But to Tisdale, it's all about preserving small-town America and the serenity of country living.

In 2008, she produced "A Question of Power," a powerful and widely-viewed documentary on Sunrise Powerlink. She also testified against SDG&E's proposal to shut off electricity to backcountry residents during high fire-risk periods.  Tisdale has been outspoken in raising concerns over other projects including a proposed wind farm with 400-foot-high wind turbines, a large-scale proposed residential development, and release of violent sexual predators in her community--and that's just in the past year.  She pens a newspaper column on backcountry issues, sits on a citizens' advisory panel on waste management, and serves on Supervisor Dianne Jacob's Backcountry Revitalization Committee. 

Tisdale's activism on land use and community issues began nearly two decades ago, when she formed Backcountry Against Dumps, Inc. (BAD), an organization aimed at preventing a solid waste and industrial landfill proposed by Campo Indians on reservation land as a means of economic revitalization for the tribe.  That project remains under review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is expected to issue a supplemental environmental impact statement in the near future.

 "The Campo Landfill was my wake-up call and baptism by fire," said Tisdale, who feared contamination of her community's only source of drinking water from toxins at the site.  The prospect spurred her to become active on many fronts. Her success staving off major projects since then has inspired citizens in other East County rural communities to launch successful protest movements against high-profile projects. 

Through the years, she's learned the power of mobilizing opposition via public forums, media, and online organizing.  The Internet has made efforts easier for activists such as Tisdale, whose early actions were hindered by communication hurdles. "At the time," East County's avid activist recalled, "I did not even have a phone."   


Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger with Cal-Fire Executive Officer Del Walter presenting a gold medal of valor to Captail Carl Schwettmann, who rescued a burned firefighter during the Harris Fire in Potrero.
(Michael Routh of CAL FIRE)

In December 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger awarded Cal Fire Captain Carl Schwettmann Jr. a gold Medal of Valor, the highest honor bestowed upon a state employee, for risking his own life to save another. Informed during the Harris Fire that a firefighter was missing and presumed dead, Schwettmann resolved, "We don't leave anybody behind." 

Captain Schwettmann drove his truck through intense heat, smoke and howling wind in a 15 to 20 minute search before finding Andrew Pikop, 23, who had suffered second degree burns over his entire body after becoming separated from other firefighters during efforts to rescue a trapped homeowner in Potrero. 

Cal Fire's captain summoned a helicopter to rescue Pikop, who made a full recovery and has since returned to duty.  In an ironic twist of fate, Schwettmann lost his barn in Ramona during the Witch Fire the same day,  but still had strength to save his own home, using only a shovel. 

Humble about his heroism, he praised his coworkers and said he thought of the missing firefighter as a lost family member.  The Harris Fire hero concluded, "I truly believe I work with some of the best firefighters in the world."



Jan Hedlun alerted townspeople to Blackwater's plan to build a private military training camp near the small town of Potrero on land surround by federal wilderness preserves, shortly after she won election to the Potrero Planning Gro

up.  Her efforts helped draw international attention--and inspired local farmer Carl Meyer to serve recall notices on all other planning group members.  

The recall succeeded, marking the first time in San Diego County history that five members of a planning board were removed from office simultaneously.  Citizens tossed out pro-Blackwater planners by a two-to-one margin with the highest voter turnout on record--a remarkable feat, particularly since the Harris wildfire scorched Potrero just one month before the election.  A planner who voted for Blackwater refused to evacuate, valiantly saving neighbors' homes from fire. The blaze left some Potrero residents homeless, trapping others for days.  Ironically, Blackwater was first to come to the rescue, bringing food and water.  Potrero voters found themselves forced to choose between loyalty to neighbors vs. the long-term quality of life for their community. 

Meyer was named Chair of a newly-elected planning group which promptly rescinded the prior board's approval.  Although the vote was only advisory and the County Board of Supervisors would have the final say, Blackwater surrendered, withdrawing its application for the controversial project in March 2008. 

The military contractor described by author/journalist Jeremy Scahill as "the world's most powerful private mercenary army" officially pulled out due to the high cost of meeting county noise abatement requirements.  But most folks in Potrero believed that public opposition and global media attention sparked by Hedlun and Meyer proved forces too powerful for even Blackwater to ignore.

Be sure to read:



Plus last week's end-of-year wrap-up:


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