By Miriam Raftery
June 30, 2016 (San Diego’s East County) – Emotions ran high at a community meeting on Border Fire issues convened by Supervisor Dianne Jacob this morning at the Barrett Junction Café in Dulzura.
Rural residents praised efforts of firefighters, but voiced frustrations and pointed criticisms over problems that arose including lack of adequate care for animals in the evacuated areas and at shelters. communications failures, and inadequate help to locate a missing couple found dead yesterday by volunteer searchers in Potrero.
Jacob converted a previously planned coffee with the community event into a forum for the public to air concerns and for officials to respond. Representatives from Cal Fire and the Sheriff’s Department turned out, but Animal Services did not. “Not being here is not a good thing,” Jacob said of Animal Services, adding that she has heard many complaints from rural residents about both Animal Services and the Sheriff’s Department.
After providing updates, Jacob asked everyone to introduce themselves and voice any concerns.
Searching for fire victims
The most anguished response came from Julie Salmons of Descanso, who painfully recounted how 13 community members formed a search team that found bodies believed to be Jim and Kyrie Keefe, a missing couple, after numerous pleas to local Sheriff officials to launch a search fell on deaf ears. Friends of the couple had told the Sheriff that the couple would never have abandoned their dogs, which have been roaming the property ever since the fire began.
"It took a small group of women to find two people missing for 10 days,” Salmons said. “We looked at the dog tracks and followed the smell…We found them in 15 minutes. Why did it take so long for anyone to search for them?” Finding the bodies was something “ I will see for the rest of my life,” she said, adding that no counseling was offered for those traumatized.
Multiple residents said that for days they tried to get the Sheriff’s officials present to mount a search for "Barefoot Jim" Keefe and his wife, Kylie (photo, right). They said the Sheriff’s officials were rude, were not wearing ID and refused to give their names.
“Jim and Kyrie did not have a running vehicle. They were on foot,with a bunch of dogs. There is no way to tell if they were ever given any notice at all,”she said. Land cell phone service was down along with power, so they had way to evacuate or seek help. A dog with burned paws was rescued, but other dogs that died were left to rot for nine days, she said, until a neighbor buried them. Residents also said some dogs were running loose, back and forth to a ridge where their owners’ bodies were later found, curled up between boulders behind their home where the fire apparently overtook them.
Sheriff’s representative M. Barrett (photo, left) told the crowd, “We expect our deputies to be polite and courteous…We do expect our deputies to take a missing person report.”
He noted the couple lived within the evacuation zone and said deputies went door to door notifying residents, but that the property had no address sign, so there is no way to know if the deceased couple ever learned of the evacuation or not. He said the first notification to the Sheriff’s department was on the 26th, initially without names of those missing. He said efforts were made to search the home and vehicle, and that a dog team set to search the site was diverted to a missing person at risk case in North County. He also said officials pinged Keefe’s cell phone and got a signal near his brother’s home near Lake Morena, leading them to believe he had made it out.
But other disputed some of the Sheriff department’s claims.
“For days, I was stopping sheriffs and asking them to go check on these two people,” Potrero resident and farmer Iris Gardener (photo, right) said. “I personally told them I believed they could have been burned over…Officers were not wearing their badges andwould not give out their names.”
Kim Hamilton, editor of the Deerhorn Valley Antler urged Jacob, “Listen to the locals on the ground. I heard them fighting for days and days to get a search party going. I heard it from person after person.”
A woman named Michelle from Deerhorn Valley said she asked a Sheriff to do a wellness check on the missingcouple but that her request was refused. “There is no excuse,” she added.
Mitsui described officials’ responses as “unconcerned and disconcerting…They treat us like a bunch of backwoods people…like we were in the way….They had no concern for the missing people.”
She also disputed Sheriff claims that the interior of the couple’s home was searched, noting that piles of twisted, corrugated metal inside were never moved to search for bodies or anyone trapped underneath. “There was no concern and no actual search.”
Jacob called this “totally unacceptable” adding, “I’m very disturbed by what I’ve heard.” She said an After Action Report will be prepared “to amake sure lessons are learned” and that mistakes that happened in this fire” don’t happen again.”
“I’m extremely angry,” Veronica Lytle said. “I saw a wall of fire coming and I tried to call home,” just as cell service for the area went down.
Craig Williams from Campo said volunteers opened a shelter and added that ham radios worked when cell phones didn’t. John Howard from Lake Morena cited a “graet need for information out here” in fires whencell towers, phone lines and power have repeatedly failed. “Scanners and [ham] radios can help save you and your community,” he said.
Several residents said when all other communications failed, the Internet especially Facebook proved vital as communication tools. Facebook sites such as Border Fire,Campo Lake Morena Neighborhood Watch, Descanso Neighbors, Potrero Town Feed, Brush Fire Partyline,Deerhorn Valley Antler and East County Magazine all provided frequent updates and posts. Residents who evacuated communicated with others who stayed in towns to share valuable information.
One resident asked Supervisor Jacob to set up a social media site as a central point for people to share information during fires. Some backcountry community sites are private, meaning people can read posts, but can’t post messages unless they are members.
A Potrero resident asked about a rumor that AT&T turned off cell towers. Cal Fire’s Chief Mecham said he hadn’t heard of that. Dianne Jacob promised to ask AT&T to come to a future community meeting.
Even Cal Fire had communications issues. “We were extremely hamstrung for three dayswithout cell phone service at our base camp,” Chief Mecham said.
Lytle eventually found her family and they evacuated ,only to find the Campo Community Center was closed, even though it had been announced as an evacuation center. It finally opened briefly before evacuees were moved to multiple schools as the fire advanced. At the first school there was no kennel for dogs. At another, she described a nightmare that included looters, beggars and fighting dogs that threatened her safety as well as intrusive media filming her as she slept. The Humane Society, not Animal Services, showed up but didn’t have enough kennels. Her husband fell and broke his foot. He’s been in a hospital ever sinc e and “may lose his foot,”she added.
Arvela Johnson, a Mountain Empire Health board member, opened an evacuation center and found people already waiting. She said she coordinated with Red Cross but that takes a while. “Everyone was asking where to take animals. No one knew. I couldn’t take them in,” she said, adding she later learned that an animal rescue had been set up at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum station. “One woman was looking for a parent…there were questions but no answers. We need information for people who aredesperate.”
“Animals were suffering severely,” Sandy Williams stated. “Temperatures were so hot and it took a long time for a cool room to open.” She said she called Animal Services and the agency promised to come help a woman whose horse was too spooked to load in a trailer, but said they never showed up. Jacob asked for names to look into this.
A man who identified himself as "Sam from Lake Morena" said when the evacuation order came, his wife was very ill and he needed to take her to a doctor, but was told he couldn’t get back in to care for his horses if he left. “I had to hand her over to someone on the other side of the checkpoint,” he said, adding that he did not evacuate. “You need a grey area” to allow people back in with important needs, he added.
Salmon said she was one of several volunteers who responded to Iris Gardener’s pleas for help to bring feed and water in for starving and dehydrated pets and livestock in Potrero, where owners were not allowed back in to care for the animals. According to Salmon, volunteers with trucks laden with feed and water “met with resistance at roadblocks, but we were able to get in.”
Rick Alexander from Dulzura raised concerns over shooting on Bureau of Land Management property that he’s been trying to get stopped for years. “When the fire was raging, there were still people there shooting,” he said. Cal Fire Chief Tony Mecham said Cal Fire has been in frequent communications with the BLM and hopes to get the shooting stopped in time for the Fourth of July weekend.
Hamilton said people in Deerhorn Valley are having trouble getting grants fromSDG&E for Sunrise Powerlink proximity to clear defensible space. She asked if the Powerlink link impeded firefighters’ ability to get water on the Border Fire. “From my understanding, the answer is yes,” Jacob concluded.
A Dulzura resident noted that their rural station has been shuttered and unmanned. He wants to see something done about this. Chief Mecham indicated Cal Fire/County Fire is working on this issue.
A Potrero Planning Group member observed, “People have the right to choose to shelter in place. They should be helped,”adding that anger could be eliminated if residents had knowledge ahead of time of what to do.
Jennifer, a municipal employee, agreed. “These people were not asking folks to put themselves in peril. They had probable cause to go on that property,” she said of the site where two people lost their lives.
She made clear that no one has asked officials to put themselves in jeopardy during a wildfire. But she added that when people choose to shelter in place, “We’re not asking you to save us. Just assist us. Restore public trust in government.”
Cal Fire’s statements
Cal Fire and County Fire Authority Chief Tony Mecham (photo, right) said he was “very proud” of work done by firefighters but also “humbled” adding, “no response to a large incident is perfect.”
He said firefighters were “very close to security that fire at three acres.” But with dry brush from drought, fire season is four months ahead of schedule, he said. “A spot fire 300 feet up the hill ignited and lined up with the winds, so a three acre fire became 100 acres in 30 minutes.”
The blaze jumped across State Route 94; by 4 p.m. 70 engines and 400 firefighters were battling the blaze. That evening an incident management team was ordered but when the fire burned into long-unburned forest area the next day, the fire was out of control and a decision was made to order backfires. “We were damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” he said of “difficult” decisions such as ordering an early evacuation ofLake Morena. He said concern that if a backfire got out of control it could swiftly reach Lake Morena led to his decision.
He also said he”takes ownership” of a decision to lift the evacuation order early in hopes people attending their children’s graduations could return home afterwards. There was a mix-up where at one checkpoint, word didn’t get there in time and some had to wait an hour for the checkpoint to open.
The Border Fire has cost $19 million so far in firefighting costs. Cause has not been determined.
ECM raised the issue of farmers not allowed to bring in food or water for animals, including 20,000 chickens that reportedly died at one ranch, and reports that farmers who tried to have friends bring up supplies were not allowed to have them passed across the checkpoint. Mecham said, “We are looking at is there a grey area for people caring for animals” to perhaps be admitted in future situations.
Cal Fire Public Information Officer Nick Schuler had some good news to announce. In response to requests for more timely information, he said he is setting up a Cal Fire San Diego Facebook page.
Lessons learned and future plans
Despite the tragic loss of two lives and five homes, the 7,900 acre Border Fire could have been far worse if not for the efforts of firefighters to save many homes, aided by resources the county has invested in since those earlier fires. Supervisor Jacob urged everyone to get a cell phone, in addition to a land line, and sign up for Alert San Diego and the app San Diego County Emergency. “It could save your life,” she said.
Jacob voiced “deepest sympathy” over the loss of Jim Keefe and his wife, Kyrie and acknowledged the emotional ordeal that so many have been through. She noted that as after the fires in 2003 and 2007, “The community really rallied behind people.”
East County’s Supervisor also advised fire survivors that the county has waived permit and plan check fees for rebuilding permitted structures and will make bins available for debris clearance. A hazardous waste disposal event will be held in Potrero later in the year.
She noted that the County continues striving for improvements. “Tomorrow the Rural Fire District dissolves and comes under the umbrella of the County Fire Authority,” which she views as a positive step. She said San Diego County is considered a “model of cooperation among various agencies and other organizations” despite the issues that occurred during the Border Fire, which she aims to resolve for the future.
She pledged to continue working to try and persuade the U.S. Forest Service to land and take off its air tankers from the Ramona Air Base, instead of losing precious time flying them from San Bernadino.
Jacob thanked Iris Gardener for organizing aid to animals in the evacuation zone and praised Leann Mitsui, who helped organize the search that located the bodies believed to be Jim and Kylie Keefe. She said their “heroic” efforts will be formally recognized later one.
She promised to hold another meeting on the Border Fire issues in the future in the area impacted by the fire, so that residents unable to attend this morning’s meeting will be able to attend and share their views.