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By Miriam Raftery

Photo: County Fire Chief Gary Croucher

June 23, 2016 (El Cajon) --At a community meeting Thursday night at the Los Coches Creek Elementary School in El Cajon, fire officials gave a briefing on steps they took to battle the Border Fire, which since Sunday has burned close to 7,400 acres, destroying 5 homes and 11 outbuildings.  

Residents voiced gratitude toward firefighters for  valiant efforts to save homes and lives, also acknowledging much that has improved since the 2003 and 2007 firestorms thanks to better investments in firefighting equipment and technology.

But some voiced concerns over areas they hope to see improved-- notably helping children and young teens forced to evacuate when parents were away at work, slow communications early on about the fire’s progress, animals lacking food and water in the evacuation zone, and inadequate water at Lake Morena for firefighting aircraft due to the city of San Diego draining the reservoir too low.

County Fire/Cal Fire Chief Gary Croucher recalled getting a phone call on Father’s Day about the fire burning near Potrero in unprecedented 109 degree heat.  He says the incident triggered an “unprecedented response”  since historically, Potrero has been the scene of severe firestorms and it takes a long time to get resources into the remote area near the border.

In 1940, a burnover at  nearby Camp Lockett in Campo killed several soldiers.  In 1973 and 1974, fires in that vicinity resulted in firefighter fatalities and during the 2007 firestorm, a burnover killed a civilian and injured three firefighters, who suffered severe burns.

The first engine arrived on scene within 12 minutes of a 911 call to the remote area.  Soon after 10 engines, two air tankers and other resources were on the scene.  Despite those efforts the fast-burning fire jumped across Highway 94.  Soon five air tankers were on the scene along with several helicopters.  Despite fires burning elsewhere in the state, thankfully, Captain Croucher says, “They listened and gave us what we asked for.” By 2:45 p.m. 70 engines had been ordered and a CERT team also activated.

Croucher told residents, “Every single station was covered” including those in Potrero, Campo, Lake Morena and Boulevard.  Dispatchers backfilled all stations where firefighters were deployed to assure that other 911 calls would be answered as needed.

Mike Olivarria from Cal Fire said that Monday morning, on day two of the fire, the fire again jumped across 94.  The hot, dry conditions continued even through the night and the terrain hadn’t burned in years, so the fire spread rapidly.  Air tankers dropped fire retardant, allowing crews to get in on the ground from Buckman Springs Road to Harris Ranch Road. “Then we started burning it,” he said of a backfire lit to save homes.

By Thursday night, he said, firefighters had a “shakey containment” but he added that we won’t be out of the woods for a couple of more days, since shifting winds could again jump flames out of the containment line which as of late Thursday night stood at 35 percent.

Incident Commander Ron Bravo praised the cooperation among many agencies noting “We’re relying on each other.” He apologized for the long time some evacuated residents had to spend in shelters but said, “We have to make decisions based on not losing any more property or lives.”

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said she and her staff have been closely monitoring the fire. She recalled the 2003 Cedar Fire when there were problems with lack of communications and resources.

“The County has really stepped up to the plate,” she said, noting that $350 million has been invested in improving communications and the county now has three firefighting helicopters stationed here.  “A lot of lessons have been learned,”she said, adding that the military can even be called in now if needed.  But she cautioned that another fire won’t be a matter of”if, but when.” She also voiced thanks that there were no Santa Ana winds during the Border Fire. “Those devil winds are what really hinder firefighters,” she stated.

Supervisor Jacob also announced some help for fire victims, including assistance with debris removal and a waiver of permit fees for rebuilding structures that were legally permitted.

Still she acknowledged some problems did occur. “We received emails about animals not being fed,” she said, praising County Animal Services for responding once notified. But she added, “The community has come together like nothing before” to bring feed and water to animals in need.  “I really love our backcountry.”

She also revealed that her office has forwarded complaints to the District Attorney alleging that the Potrero General Store raised prices and engaged in price-gouging during the disaster.

County Fire Chief Tony Mecham said firefighter safety was a top priority when battling the fire.  “We are in for a long, hot summer” he predicted.  He then asked any residents with concerns to “please come talk to us…We promise you we will address the issue.”

Next came questions from the media and public.

A Potrero resident of many years who has also served as a San Diego Rural Fire Captain said that residents who had issues with animals not being fed in the evacuation area shoulder some blame for the situation.  He stated, “People need to understand that if you choose not to evacuate, you are on your own.  You should have three days of everything you need –including feed and water for animals.” He praised the county for doing an “outstanding job.”

Fire official Scott Mclean said firefighting crews were also looking out for the animals and giving water to many of them.

A 20-year Potrero resident told firefighters, “You guys did a fabulous job” at fighting the fires, but then asked how an acre and a half fire in Coyote Holler could grow so big without any wind.

Bravo said that with the drought, firefighters across the state are “seeing things we’ve never seen…there is a different paradigm than we’re seeing in the past” with brush burning faster.  He added, “Travel time to get these resources is critical.”

Another backcountry resident asked about controlled burns. One of the fire officials responded that these are done in spring, but that it’s not a good idea during summer.

Croucher noted that a recent burn was done to create a fuel break around Lake Morena during the winter.  “Don’t be mad a year and a half from now when you see pink,” he quipped, a reference to the fire retardant dropped.

Supervisor Jacob posted on Facebook to blast the U..S. Forest Service for refusing to land its larger air tanker at the Ramona Air Base, flying it all the way from San Bernadino instead. The Forest Service has contended the runway at Ramona is too small- but Cal Fire repeatedly landed and took off from there with the same model planes.

ECM’s editor Miriam Raftery asked if that delay allowed the fire to spread in the early hours. Chief Mecham said it did not, since they ordered extra tankers  to make up for them coming from farther away.

Campo Hills resident (photo, right) wanted to know when she could go home, stating, “most of my belongings have been in my hot car for two or three days now.” Upon learning that the evacuation order for her area had just been lifted,she broke into a broad smile.

An audience member complained about long delays in notifications from Cal.  During the first two days of the fire, the agency went 13 hours and nearly 16 hours without any emails, tweets or other notifications.  Scott McLean, a Cal Fire Public Information Officer, said that was “on my shoulders” but explained , “We had no cell service at the base camp.”  Later, once cell service and Internet were set up, the communications improved, with frequent updates throughout the day in the subsequent days of the Border Fire.

Bravo said fiberoptics for cell phone service in Potrero were damaged so badly that even a temporary rig to connect to the tower didn’t work.  Fiberoptics take a long time to repair, he added.  Whlie technology is great, he quipped,“Sometimes we just have to write stuff down and talk to each other.”  He thanked the county for providing 880 megahertz radios.

Kendal Bortisser, Cal Fire’s Public Information Officer, said he tried to stay in touch with tweets but noted, “Every news agency in town has this cell phone number.” He said he received over 500 calls within the first 48 hours and now has 30,000 following his Twitter account. He said he also kept public officials informed.  He noted that with the new 211 system, Cal Fire has been referring people to call 211  during the fire.

A Jamul resident and San Diego Rural Cert Team member said she recently got a ham radio operator’s license and noted, “Those hammies were working” during the fire to help get information out on the Potrero situation and more.  Ham operators helped feed information to fire chiefs and the CERT team members as well. She added that classes on HAM radio will soon be offered to the community, and not only to CERT members.

But a Campo resident made clear that some issues still need to be resolved for the future.  “A lot of parents were flipping out because when they were told to evacuate they were at work an hour and a half away. School was out and their kids were at home…children were getting other children out.”  Some kids watching younger siblings were too young to drive to evacuate. “What can we do for the future?”asked. 

Mecham said another community meeting will be held and asked her to get in touch with Captain Croucher on this issue.

Echoing the Campo resident’s concern, a Lake Morena resident told ECM that his daughter, who is too  young to legally drive, took the wheel to drive out when the evacuation order came.

Some residents admitted to sneaking back into evacuation areas to retrieve medications or other belongings forgotten, not realizing back fires had been lit but fortunately avoiding harm.

A Campo resident stated, “Another thorn in everyone’s side is our lovely Lake Morena…the City of San Diego drained off our water and refuses to fix the dam. You guys were sucking up mud. You were sucking up my neighbor’s pond…” She voiced anger that San Diego had drained the lake so low.

Supervisor Jacob  responded, “You nailed it.” She said she’s been talking to “every mayor of San Diego” in recent years and that the county made a “very bad decision” years ago to allow the city rights to the water while the county kept ownership of recreational lands around the lake.  “To the city it’s free water but to us, it’s all about having adequate water supplies for firefighting,” she stated.  “Just leave it at a certain level!”  Jacob has tried repeatedly to get the city to not drain the lake so low, but the city drained it down to 3% anway, as ECM has previously reported.  “Now we could have used that water” during the fire.”

Jacob urged everyone to write to the Mayor and City Council in San Diego and let them know they want water levels restored in Lake Morena for firefighter.  She noted that since the Cedar Fire,they now know that with high winds, a fire that starts in our backcountry can burn all the way into San Diego.  She called the city’s actions “very short sighted.”

ECM suggested that a satellite for internet hookup should be installed at the Potrero library or other locations for the future, since Potrero lost all communications with the outside world (land line phones, cell phones, cable internet and electrical power.  Bob Scheid, a rnew esident of Lake Morena, later told us that he was the only one in his community with Internet, since he is on Hughes, a satellite service, while others were on AT&T and had no service. 

Jacob urged all residents to download the San Diego County Emergency app and to sign up for Alert San Diego.

A resident voiced concerns over 10 foot tall brush behind her property that hasn’t burned since the 1970 Laguna Fire. “It scares the living daylights out of me,”she said.  Bravo suggested she get involved with a local Fire Safe Council since they can apply for grants for projects such as this but he added, “it takes a grassroots effort.”

He praised residents who had cleared defensible space around their homes, adding that this helped firefighters.  “A lot of thanks goes to the citizens that are out there,”he said.

Jacob, speaking with ECM after the event, voiced concerns over Sunrise Powerlink. “They couldn’t get ot the fire because of Sunrise Powerlink,” she said of firefighters efforts , adding that the high voltage power line also “delayed SDG&E getting into assess” damage after the fire.

After the meeting, ECM heard from Kim Hamilton from the Deerhorn Valley Antler,organizer of relief efforts to bring water and supplies to animals in Potrero, and from Jan Hedlun in Potrero. We learned that even though roads are now open, power remains out and could take weeks to restore. Since residents rely on electric well pumps, both people and animals will be needing large amounts of water for the foreseeable future. She added that Potrero residents also have had to discard spoiled foods from refrigerators, so supplies of non-perishable food donations are also needed. Volunteers are also needed to deliver supplies.

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