An East County Magazine exclusive report
View video with exclusive interviews: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=984eIPcneAo or click the image above.
By Ana Nita
November 20, 2018 (Lakeside) – “I don’t know what started it,” says El Monte Valley resident Dianna Alotta, who works and lives at a horse ranch close to where the #ElMonteFire began on Sunday afternoon. After her husband told her that a fire was burning, she recalls, “I looked over and there’s smoke, so I came running back here.” She adds, “Thank God a bunch of other people, neighbors and stuff pulled together, got the horses out of the danger range.”
When the fire in the El Monte Valley started and firemen had arrived at the scene, Alotta was still holding a hose up high and aiming for the surrounding trees right behind the fence at the Attigs’ ranch. She was still in shock, talking precipitously through short breaths, gasping for air and the right words to describe the horror of what she was still experiencing.
Shaken, she pointed out at the bared land, ashes floating all around on the tall trees and burnt vegetation. “It was right here; it was scary,” she told ECM. “I was worried to death about these animals. A lot of animals had to evacuate. We took them to the west side of the property, ready to take them out of here. It was scary, thank you, Jesus.”
Allota is one of several hundred residents of the El Monte Valley, Lakeside, who got a major scare after the fire started in the river bottom, swiftly spreading flames throughout the valley and panic through everyone’s homes.
The fire started just before 3 p.m. Firefighters arrived at the scene shortly after, reporting the “forward rate of spread has been stopped” at 3:42 according to the Cal Fire San Diego Twitter page.
Initially, it was reported that an estimated eight acres caught fire for causes unknown. Bernie Molloy, Division Chief with the Lakeside Fire Department, confirmed on Monday evening that the fire affected 6.6 acres of land in the drainage area in the river bottom. Molloy said the department couldn’t yet confirm who is the owner of the land. He also said the firemen remained on the site all night until Monday at noon to finish the mop up after the air crews and the ground crews worked to put out the fire.
Sydney Morehouse has a ranch right along the river bottom where the fire started. “We were doing our daily routine and chores and one of the guys here noticed that there was smoke and yelled and alerted all of us,” she said. “We kind of jumped into our emergency plan that we’ve always had in place and started doing what was needed.”
Morehouse was at the 2018 Hering Cup Polo Tournament on the other side of the valley on Willow Road when she saw the smoke and drove home right away. She recalled, “A few neighbors ran over and started to throw dirt on the fire to try and control it before it got too larger, but it got bigger faster than we could handle, so the Sheriff asked us to come back on our property. “
Darcey Attig owns the equestrian training business and ranch. where she lives with her husband, Ronnie, and their children. All residents in the valley use well water and the Attigs were concerned they could not use the water when the power went out.
“We have no access to city water, so we have a generator on hand. We rewired everything, hooked the well on there to use the hoses, “ said Attig. The family moved the horses to the west side of the property away from the flame, getting ready to evacuate if ordered by the Sheriff department.
Her daughter, Hayley, admits to being worried, but took comfort in the fact that everybody pulled together, remaining focused and on task. “Definitely, I was afraid,” she said. “I was getting everything put together, so if we need to get out of here in time, we would grab everything, put in the trailer and get out of here. We were pretty well organized, I’d say. But definitely scary.”
Hayley’s mother, Darcey, shared how all the neighbors came to check on them. “Everybody worked together and tried not to panic and remind each other we are okay,” Darcey said. Hayley’s father, Ronnie, jumped on his tractor and helped the fire engines, she added. “Two of the fire fighting crews got stuck, so I jumped in the loader, went down a couple of neighbors’ houses and got them unstuck.”
When the horses were moved out of the danger range, valley resident Ginny Lopez said she jumped in the car and went down to the 7/11 on El Monte Road, where “they donated cases of water and bags of ice for the firefighters and people here working.”
By 3:30 p.m., Preston Fouts, Battalion Chief and Law Enforcement Officer for Cal Fire San Diego confirmed, “There are heavy fuels in the river bottom and we will be out here committed for a while to make sure it’s 100 percent mopped up.” Fouts said there were four crews from McCain Valley camp, “as well as one dozer and engines from Cal Fire, San Diego Cal Fire and Lakeside Fire stations.” Molloy from the Lakeside Fire station said there were also around 50 hand crews (inmates) on the site along with approximately 50 firemen joined by one fix wing plane and two helicopters as part of the aircrew.
Cal Fire is leading the investigation and not releasing any information at this time on the fire’s cause. There are several rumors circulating in the valley , including that a homeowner caused the blaze, that teenagers set the fire accidentally, as well as speculation of arson related to the current sand mining project proposed for the El Monte Valley. However, the Sheriff’s Bomb and Arson Unit confirmed this department was not solicited to lead the investigation, which would customarily done when there is a presumption of arson.
Attig said she heard one Sheriff’s deputy say he is following up on a witness who saw “four young boys who came running out of the river bottom and yelled that they accidentally started a fire.” Another eyewitness corroborates this version of the story. Sancho Ravelo drives tourist buses on the scenic route in the valley. He said, “While driving back on El Monte Rd., I seen smoke coming from the river bed near the dairy and at the same time there was a black SUV on the side of the road with a group of teenagers.” Ravelo said he saw the youngsters “calling frantically on their cell phones. One teenager had blond hair and looked like a surfer type.” Ravelo assumed they were calling 911 like everybody else and didn’t claim they were the ones who started the fire.
Although Chief Molloy said this was a small local incident with no victims, no structural damage or medical emergencies and it was contained quickly, the valley residents look at this fire through different lenses. Most everybody contacted about this fire mentioned their biggest fear is not being able to get out of the valley alive in case of another fire-- if a proposed sand mining project is approved to break ground early next year.
The only way out of the valley for the sand mining company’s trucks and everybody else’s vehicles is the two-lane El Monte Road. The Attigs and their neighbors believe one exit route would not be able to safely accommodate the heavy traffic created by hundreds of trucks carrying sand daily along with horse trailers, fire engines and other emergency vehicles, plus boats, trucks and RVs coming from the El Capitan Reservoir located on the east side of the valley.
Alotta told ECM, “I think that sand mining is criminal. I can’t believe they are even getting away with it. I figured they must be paying off or getting paid an awful lot of money to be putting people’s lives in danger.” She believes it’s all about greed: “So, people’s lives are in danger because they are getting a pocket full of money? What’s wrong with America? That makes me sick. That sounds like some shit going on in some third world country, not here.”
Attig agreed. “They take away our access and we only have one way in and out of this valley. And today having the issue that we had, if the trucks were running, say it was during the week, we would now be trying to get in and out of the valley along with what they’d have going on…Those are things we worry about. “
Gathered around in the dark by the horse barn with firefighters close by mopping up the inflamed ground, a group of valley residents debated if this fire may be a warning flag of what could happen during the Santa Ana season with strong winds and scorching temperatures exacerbating conditions from the sand mine proposed on 500 acres in the valley.
They all agreed the sand mining project could be a death sentence for everybody who lives here-- another Paradise, California in the making due to the lack of alternative exit roads out of this valley.
Alotta, muffled by the sound of chain saws used by firemen to chop down the charred chaparral in the valley, concluded, ”They are not going to stop unless we stop them, unless we physically make a chain and not let them go through. Then what, we will probably get arrested, so what? At least we will make some news enough to stop it, right?”
Ana Nita is a Lakeside resident, award-winning journalist and activist who has raised serious concerns about the proposed sand mine’s impact on health and safety in her community.