By Miriam Raftery
Photo, left: Cal Fire firefighter douses hot spots during Border Fire
June 22, 2016 (Potrero)—Joe Cebe, Sr. lost everything at his chicken farm in Ramona during the 2003 Cedar fire. He suffered more losses in the 2007 firestorms, when his Potrero ranch operations were disrupted. Now during the Border Fire, he’s suffered devastating losses at the Cebe Farms facility in Potrero. T his time, thousands of chickens died not from fire, but from bureaucratic decisions by fire officials that left 100,000 chickens largely deprived of water and food for days amid triple-digit heat.
“We’re running on a wing and a prayer,” Sebe told East County Magazine in an exclusive interview this morning. He estimates at least 20% of the flock has been lost thus far. Power remains out, his water tanks are empty, and Cal Fire initially denied a request to power up an emergency generator, he says, adding that he is currently still awaiting permission to bring in trucks with feed and more water for the surviving birds.
When the fire began shortly after 11 a.m. on Sunday, June 19th, the ranch was evacuated. The ranch has an automatic feeding and watering system, but needs someone there to supervise it.
Two water cisterns on the property hold about 15,000 gallons each. “That should have fed our chickens for three or four days at least,” he says.
Then he learned from a TV cameraman that Cal Fire was using his ranch as a staging ground for fire crews. He initially was told firefighters drained the tanks, but later called us back to state this was inaccurate.
His 100 acre property had bare ground clearance of 25 acres that “looked like a Wal-mart parking lot,” he says, voicing frustration that he has not been allowed to hae accesss.
Unable to help, the employees left and have not yet been allowed back into the property.
Then a vineyard owner with a water truck offered to bring in a supply enough for an hour or two to help the chickens.
A second water truck operator told ECM that he asked Humane Society volunteers for permission to help, but was denied.
Meanwhile Cebe tried to get an emergency generator in and hooked up to get the well pump operating and a misting system to cool down the chickens, as well as the automatic feeding system.
At first, SDG&E balked at the idea, fearful that feedback could electrocute a lineman. But after Cebe explained steps to prevent that, he says, “SDG&E said okay but the fire guys wouldn’t let us.” Eventually after more negotiations he agreed to surrender his electric meter and was finally allowed to hook up a generator and start pumping water.
“How many are lost now? We have no idea. ..the stage we’re at is trying to save the living,before collecting the dead.”
He says SDG&E called him last night to say they were ready to turn his power back on, but Cal Fire has denied permission, perhaps for fear of energized lines harming firefighters or perhaps to discourage residents from trying to return home while the fire is still burning to the east in the Lake Morena/Campo area.
He now has enough water for 24 to 48 hours. “I’ve got a truck on the road right now with 24 tons of feed,”Cebe says, frustrated at the lack of access. “We don’t need help from the government – we need the government to get out of the way.”
His biggest concern is losing breeder chickens, which could shut down operations for months.”
Cebe Farms specializing in sales of live, heritage chickens. Before the 2003 Cedar Fire in Ramona, Cebe says he had a 90% share of that market here; after the 100% loss in the fire, his share dropped to 50%. He's also had setbacks
“There’s the initial loss of birds, then how many survivors will make it to market. But the biggest loss is losing your customer,because if you lose your customers, ”he reflects, “you’ve lost the whole business.”