RURAL SHERIFF’S OFFICE RESPONDS TO BORDER FIRE CONCERNS

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By Miriam Raftery

July 13, 2016 (San Diego’s East County) – Captain Hank Turner from the Sheriff’s Rural Substation in Campo has reached out to address concerns raised by residents at recent public meetings regarding issues that arose during the Border Fire.

Those concerns have prompted two avenues for potential  reforms:  an internal investigation regarding a search for two missing people found dead 10 days after the fire, and an action report  on a broader set of issues, along with recommendations forchanges for the future.

“I’ve lived in East County most of my life. I’m glad to be working out here; my kids go to school with the people out here, and if a fire hits, I’m not living in La Jolla,” Captain Turner told East County Magazine. “I’m living out here and I’m going to be working out here during the fires.”

He noted, “There are things we as law enforcement can change and things that we can’t change.” For example, access during evacuations is determined by Cal Fire, not the Sheriff’s department.

Several  complaints focused on the handling of a search for Jim and Kyrie Keefe, the couple found dead among boulders  50 to 70  yards behind their residence by volunteer searchers.

“We have confirmed that they did get word of the evacuation,” Turner told ECM. He indicated that  deputies contacted them on the property. “They were told `We’re fine, we’re going to ride this out, please leave us alone,’” he said. Tragically the fire overran the site and the couple died of smoke inhalation, according to the County Medical Examiner.

Residents complained that after the fire, pleas to deputies to take a missing persons report and launch a search  initially were not heeded, that deputies were not wearing name badges and that at least one refused to give his name.

The Sheriff’s department has indicated that the first person who asked for a search did not know the couple’s name or exact address.

  It is true, however, that some deputies’ badges were not visible. That’s because during the fire, deputies were told to wear Yellow turnouts and some wore external vests that covered badges. “You can’t put a metal nametag on fire retardant gear; it will get super hot and burn,” Captain Turner explained.  But he added that deputies should give names if asked and should always be courteous to the public.  The department is looking into potential solutions for the future to have identifications visible.

After a missing persons report was ultimately taken, he said,  the deputies who took the report did walk through the property on Monday, June 27, 8 days after the fire, looking for the Keefes.  The next day, the Sheriff’s Bomb Arson unit and Cal Fire also searched the property but missed finding the bodies in the rocks on a hill behind the home.  They called for a Search and Rescue unit, which includes rescue and recovery dogs, but the canines were deployed on a search for a missing person in Valley Center.

A rural sergeant and search and rescue personnel came to come up with a search plan but in the meantime, Concerned neighbors formed their own search group and found the bodies after a 15-minute effort by following tracks left by the couple’s dogs and also following the odor of decay.

Turner said no effort was made to stop the volunteers. “I said at this point, any help we can get we can appreciate,” he added.

He said an officer called to report that the women who found the bodies were “not happy, they were yelling and upset…I told the deputies to give them some space.”

Some of the women have indicated they wanted to speak to a counselor or social worker, but none was provided.  Turner said he was not aware of that initially but that free counseling short-term is available through Trauma Intervention Prevention Speciaists,  or TIPS.(Learn more at  http://www.tipsandiego.org/)

Other concerns of community members  in evacuated areas involved problems getting supplies for animals including livestock and pets.

Turner said one proposal for the future could be to issue critical infrastructure ID  prior to a disaster that would enable some individuals to have access to care for large numbers of animals, potentially preventing disastrous losses such as a chicken farm where an estimated20,000chickens died due to lack of water, feed, and a generator to power up a cooling system.

He confirmed that people who leave an evacuation are won’t be allowed back in, even if they are seeking to bring supplies in for their own animals.  Asked about an incident in which one  group of volunteers was reportedly prevented from handing supplies over a barricade to a  farmer inside the evacuation zone, however, Turner said, “They should be able to hand supplies over.”

He pointed out that there is good reason for wanting people to evacuate and to stay out until evacuations are lifted.  One is that fires can burn back, trapping people.   The couple who died in Potrero, for example, could have survived if they had heeded evacuation warnings.  Another problem is that unauthorized vehicles can block roads for firefighters or run over and damage hoses, as happened in another recent local firestorm.  If people don’t evacuate and later request a rescue, firefighters are put at risk; one suffered severe burns in the 2007 Harris Fire attempting to rescue a resident in Potrero.

Overall, he believes, “We are light years ahead of when I came on this department in 2002. We are better than in 2003 and 2007.  There are some things in this that we need to look at,” he acknowledged, adding that after a community meeting in Dulzura, some residents have contacted him with specifics on times and dates of interactions with deputies.

He encourages citizens to reach out and call him at 619-659-2601 with any concerns “so we can see how we can do a better job.”

Supervisor Dianne Jacob's office has advised that an after the fires action report will be prepared by the County, and that residents will have an opportunity for input after the initial draft report is available later this summer.

Comments

Sheriff issues in Potrero during fire

Community members raise many valid concerns and there are conflicting versions of what occurred.

The community members with concerns may wish to request a meeting with Sheriff Gore, to allay concerns that a whitewash could occur with a local official involved who some had complaints about.

Identity of Responders

Place the last name and agency stenciled on the outer layer of clothing.
SD Sheriff... Lt. A. Smith, Cal-Fire...B. Jones.

Really?

“We have confirmed that they (Jim and Kyrie) did get word of the evacuation,” Turner told ECM. He indicated that “. . . deputies contacted them on the property." 1. How can we be sure this happened now that Jim and Kyrie have no voice? Not everybody in the community received an evacuation notification (myself included), either in person or via text or email in spite of what has been said in the media or during meetings. 2. “The Sheriff’s department has indicated that the first person who asked for a search did not know the couple’s name or exact address.” 2a. We are a small community – local law enforcement knew exactly who Barefoot Jim was and where he lived. Even if the person who asked for the search didn’t know who they were or where they were at, others did and all anyone had to do was ask local law enforcement or members of the community. 3. “Sheriff’s Bomb Arson unit and Cal Fire also searched the property but missed finding the bodies in the rocks on a hill behind the home." This was 8 days after the fire. 3a. 10 days after the fire it took local women 15 minutes to find the bodies following dog tracks and, a few minutes up the hill, smell. Untrained women. 15 minutes. 10 days later. 4. Law enforcement basing their lack of search on rumors of Jim’s presence in the area "walking along the train tracks" is an inadequate excuse. An unsubstantiated rumor. Jim not showing up to care for his animals or calling friends or family on his cell phone to tell them he was all right concerned friends and neighbors, which should have been enough to trigger a search. 5. During the wildfire those who stayed in the area, whether warned to evacuate or not, were treated as if we were villains by law enforcement. This is inclusive with not providing names, and belligerent attitudes. The lack of courtesy has been ongoing for some time and was at its worst during the fire. 6. Several residents who decided to stay were told by law enforcement, “do not call 911 if the fire comes back. We’re giving them (911 operators) your name and we will not be coming back to save you.” 7. Residents trying to leave Potrero found themselves driving though towering flames, unable to see through the smoke. Why didn't law enforcement keep them in place until the threat was diminished or gone? 8. Access was blocked to Tecate where, once the fire was past and electricity was restored, fuel and food were available. 9. Access was blocked to our own Community Center once the roadblock was moved. This was the only Cool Zone available and supported WiFi where people could communicate with loved ones or contact outside support groups. 10. A basic three day supply is recommended for residents who shelter in place. After that supplies are supposed to arrive to assist those remaining behind. This did not happen. 11. And why is Captain Turner addressing these concerns when he may be a part of the problem? This is a conflict of interest. Why aren’t we hearing from Sheriff William Gore on these issues? With all of the obfuscation and truth bending going on in the media, and to the communities affected, pardon me for not being ready to believe the deputy that told Captain Turner that Jim and Kyrie received word to evacuate. Pardon me for not being ready to blindly believe Captain Turner on any of the issues still to be addressed and are falling to the wayside with time and the usual bureaucratic procrastination.

Deputies contacted them?

Standard protocol would mean they would take their names and next of kin IF something happened to them.Yes??? anyone?

Sheriff's account

Upon reading the sheriff's account of the missing couple from the border fire, i find his conclusions very disturbing.If in fact the sheriffs notified these people of a mandatory evacuation and they chose to "ride it out" why did they not automatically check on them after the fire went through the property? They should have done a wellness check on their own.Once they were asked to do a search, did they really need to know the names of who was missing?

Conflicting information

" rural sergeant and search and rescue personnel came to come up with a search plan but in the meantime, Concerned neighbors formed their own search group." This conflicts with what I was told by search and rescue coordinator about an hour before the body was found. He stated to me that there was no rush to do a search as someone saw Jim walking down the rail road track the previous Wednesday. There was an open case and investigation but no rush. I asked him if a search would be done that day, Wednesday, he said. I asked if it would be done the next day Thursday and he said no.

Disapointing

Pretty disappointing, however I expecting nothing less. It all looks nice and tidy in a report like that but everyone knows in real life nothing can be tied up Ito a neat little bow. the Sherriff department had no trouble knowing who and where they were when they told them to evacuate and ,according to them knew they were not going to evacuate and they also stated that they knew the property had burned, we also know that they knew these dogs were running around burnt and unattended after the fires. There is no mention of the fact that they couldn't bother themselves with making an attempt to find out the names of the couple... Leann managed to figure out she could go through jims jacket left there by his broken down down on the property and find something with his name on it there. They claim they never tried to stop us from going onto the property however the property owner told me otherwise . He told me they called him trying to get him to state he didn't want us to trespass. . They claim that the day before search and rescue were there ? I find it very hard to believe that such a highly trained team could not manage to notice paw prints..animal activity or that smell. There were buzzards there for gods sake? They either were not there of they have some serious training they need to get. Bottom line is that those 2 people should never have been left in that crevice for 10 days and the local Sherriff are responsible for that happening. They need to just admit they did nothing to find them just as Diane Jacob needs to admit she ignored countless emails and did nothing to insist that they find them. The excuse that the search dog was rerouted elsewhere? Ok I will give them a 2 day pass for that but what about the other 8 days?