By Miriam Raftery
Photo by Richard Edwords: Harrowing ride along State Route 94 during Border Fire
September 15, 2016 (San Diego’s East County) – The County’s Border Fire 2016 After Action Report presents a review on the regional response to the Border Fire that ignores many serious complaints lodged by rural residents in the fire. The report was written entirely by official agencies and does not include concerns raised by the public, leading rural planning officials, residents and a community news editor to contend the county whitewashed their concerns.
The blaze killed two people , destroyed five homes and left countless animals without care in triple-digit heat while residents were refused access for days after the fire. While residents praise efforts of firefighters who worked valiantly to prevent worse losses, many feel betrayed by officials in the wake of the Border Fire report and other complaints that residents say have yielded little or no meaningful changes.
The report omits entirely any mention of controversies over the deaths of Potrero residents Jim and Kyrie Keefe, whose bodies were found by community volunteers. Agencies praised themselves in the report, while omitting criticisms on issues such as lack of adequate care for animals stranded in triple-digit heat and inadequate evacuation notifications -- in some cases, just yellow caution tape stuck on mailboxes, with no explanation or direct contact with residents in danger after their phone lines, cell towers and Internet service all went down in communities such as Potrero and Lake Morena.
Many of those criticisms were documented by ECM in prior articles, raised by residents in meetings with Dianne Jacob ,fire and law enforcement officials, in written complaints to officials, and more.
Page 4 of the report states that two people died. There is no discussion of how they died, or whether their deaths could have been prevented through more resources on the fire in its early stages. Nor is there any consideration of evacuation notification to the couple, whose vehicle was disabled. The report also omits complaints by concerned neighbors who say they pleaded with deputies for days to search for the missing couple, to no avail. Some complained that deputies declined to give their names and wore no badges, but that’s not mentioned, nor is an internal investigation into one of the deputies referenced.
The report never mentions that the bodies were found huddled between boulders behind the couple’s home by community volunteers who were traumatized by the grim discovery and angered at explanations offered by officials who had failed to launch a property-wide search. Volunteer searchers said they easily found the bodies within 15 minutes by followed one of the couple's many emaciated dogs found roaming the property, as well as by the stench of death and vultures circling overhead. There is not even any discussion of tips to help residents better understand the importance of evacuating or how to improve odds of survival if trapped by a swiftly moving fire.
Kim Hamilton, editor of the Deerhorn Valley Antler, asks,”How can this report have ANY validity if the loss of life was not even addressed ? Is there nothing we can learn from their deaths?” She adds, “What is the purpose of this After Action Report if not to improve things next time?”
Julie Salmons, who helped find the missing couple’s remains, posted on our site, “First no one with the County thought they deserved to even be FOUND and now they must think they don’t deserve to be mentioned in a report about a fire that took their lives?” On another forum, Salmons noted that in stark contrast to the situation here, within 24 hours after the Blue Cut fire started elsewhere in California, the Sheriff there brought in multiple dogs to search for missing persons or remains.
County Animal Control’s portion of the report contains only glowing praise for the agencies efforts including a tally of animals saved. It fails to mention numerous residents complained during and after the fire, in letters to public officials and in statements in public meetings, about the catch-22 for residents who were unable to evacuate with their animals, including pets and livestock. Some were outside the area on Father’s Day, others heeded the call to evacuate but had to leave some animals behind. Still others chose to shelter in place. But in triple digit heat, even days after the fire, residents were not allowed to enter, or to leave and return, with water and food for their animals. Thousands of chickens died at one chicken ranch alone, as ECM reported. Residents frustrated by what they deemed inadequate responses by Animal Services mounted their own relief efforts, saving many animals. To do so they had to evade roadblocks and travel on back roads.
Jan Hedlun, a member of the Potrero Planning Group , raised serious concerns in an ECM editorial. She wrote, “From the beginning a few determined residents made their way around the entire confined area of Potrero, taking their own feed supplies with them and carrying tanks of water in their vehicles, searching for animals stranded when their owners weren’t allowed through the roadblock, or whose animals were left behind by agencies sent to save them. Then those same few delivered water to families whose well pumps weren't working. Those of us that ended up behind the roadblocks found ourselves in a military/police state. Law enforcement had their reasons for how things were done but the way many of the entrapped residents were handled, how they were spoken to and dealt with by officers sent to help us was uncalled for. We were treated worse than pariahs in our own community.”
Hedlun said of the after action report, “Of course our concerns were not met. Just like there was no meeting with the daytime workers as promised or an investigation of the Sheriff’s department for their handling of residents and the Jim and Kyrie lack of search. What can we do from here to have our voices heard?”
The County did active a notification via phone and email, but not everyone received those notices.
Campo resident Keven Owens, on a community forum, posted shocking details on how evacuation notices were disseminated in Lake Morena. Other residents have confirmed similar descriptions. Owens said Sheriff deputies merely drove down streets,stopping to “place a piece of yellow caution tape on a mailbox or street sign. That’s it. Did anybody get the fucking memo that yellow caution tape means `Please evacuate?’”the frustrated resident wrote. “No loudspeakers, no bullhorns,no information of any kind. I had to stop and ask. I asked three different officers and got three different answers.”
He said one officer said info was posted on Twitter and Facebook. But not everyone has social media and some had power outages. Another said, “Well, they just could’ve turned on the news,” Owens reports. He notes that many news outlets did not provide adequate updates during the extended fire and that residents without power could not access news reports.
Billie Jo Jannen, chair of the Campo-Lake Morena Community Planning Group, wrote a blistering seven-page letter to Supervisor Jacob on behalf of the planning group, detailing concerns raised in a community meeting chaired by Jannen, as ECM reported. Her letter called for full investigation of some officials as well as review and update of policies for future local disaster management.
Jannen faulted evacuation procedures as “the chief driver behind most of the issues” during the fire. “It’s important to note that many residents have commented that they will never obey evacuation orders again because it placed their properties and animals at risk to be barred from their homes for days after the fire had already gone through,”she wrote. “In some cases this attitude could prove disastrous, so officials should think long and hard about the correct approach to evacuations in rural communities.”
Some residents were given just 10 minutes to get out—driving down a highway with sparks flying overhead, making sheltering in place seem preferably to some.
Nadin Brzezinski, founder of Reporting San Diego, was reporting at the scene and recalls turning around en route to Campo on State Route 94 because it was impassable due to the ire with zero visibility. In an online forum she wrote “…there were many issues that have to be fixed. I say that as a former first responder.. That includes not giving residents the run around when they report a person or two missing.”
Both Jannen and Hedlun have asked the county to consider providing locations for residents who want to shelter in place, including space for large animals. At a Community Emergency Response Team meeting in Potrero, the topic of support for residents sheltering in place was raised, but the County has shown zero interest in responding thus far. Jannen also asks that residents with large, wel-cleared properties be respected if they choose to shelter in place and provided the option to leave and return with supplies. She asked for better distribution of info on hotlines for help with animals, such as deputies at checkpoints handing out flyers.
Julie Salmons noted that Animal Services left a dog trapped at the Keefe property in a cage from at least 8 pm at night until noon the next morning with no water. “We moved him to the shade and gave him water,” she said.
Jannen also complained of officials treating the public with disrespect. “The incidents during this fire highlight the degenerating relationship between law enforcement and residents in recent years,” she wrote. She called for “a change in local leadership in theCampo Sheriff’s Substation.”
The Sheriff's office did offer its explanations to ECM in an article published here. Among other things, the department claimed it notified a man matching Keefe's description to evacuate,and the department indicated he declined.
Jannen also asked for full investigations into actions of deputies asked to find the Keefes after neighbors reported them misisng. She also slammed Animal Services officers who “bullied residents”over emus including a property owner who reportedly euthanized his own emu because he couldn’t afford to pay vet care fees when told his emu would be impounded for swollen feet. (Animal Services has denied that it charges residents for impounding animals, but many residents have complained of various other fees to retrieve impounded animals.) Jannen said some residents let horses loose because they could not afford impound costs during the fire.
Sarah Gorden with the County did send a response letter to Jannen, but it offered no real solutions to the most serious issues. “The County encourages people with pets to take personal responsibility for the care and evacuation of their animals because law enforcement and fire personnel will not allow people into areas under mandatory evacuation when there is threat to life and property . If people are unable to evacuate their own animals, Animal Services will respond to the emergency dispatch line to assist,” she wrote. But rural residents commonly have more pets and livestock than can be evacuated quickly. With phone lines down, it was impossible for many to call for help, and some who did have complained of inadequate responses from Animal Services.
The report does recommend pre-identifying locations of large compounds (such as the chicken ranch) to enhance Animal Services emergency planning, which could help big ranchers but still offers no help for residents confronting by a raging fire without enough vehicles or drivers to evacuate all of their animals,nor are there any suggestions to help residents bring in food and water to keep animals spared from the fire alive.
On law enforcement issues, the County deferred to an internal investigation by the Sheriff’s department of itself with apparently no independent oversight.
Animal Service complaints were largely dismissed, with the exception of possibly providing emergency resource numbers to emergency personnel on location during disasters. Those complaints had been meeting in a briefing by fire officials and in multiple news stories such as these ECM reports: 1, 2, 3.
Supervisor Jacob did hear community concerns at a coffee with constitutents atBarrett Junction Café, bringing in Cal Fire,County Fire and law enforcement representatives, as ECM reported. (Animal Services declined to show up, an action that Jacob criticized.) Residents who could not attend the early morning weekday event asked for a later meeting in Potrero at a time when working people could attend. Jacob’s office has scheduled a meeting on Tuesday, September 27th at the Potrero Library (24883 Potrero Valley Rd.) but residents are angry that it’s at 2 p.m. on a weekday, when most still cannot attend.
A spokesman for Jacob says the meeting ”can’t be rescheduled at this point” but said public input is”always welcome.” He said the process is not over, despite county staff completing its report. He notes that after the May 2014 fires, after an after-action report, “with considerable public discussion, improvements were made.”
Communication problems are discussed in the county’s report, but the solutions focus mainly on improvements to help firefighters and other officials—not residents. For instance,one recommendation is to encourage residents to register their mobile phones with AlertSanDiego. But many were left with no cell phone, land lines, electricity or internet for days., so they could not get those alerts. One resident with satellite internet was able to get calls out for help for stranded animals, sparking private rescue efforts. The County could add satellite internet to the library and community centers in rural communities, for example, to provide communication when all else fails.
Cal Fire praises itself for generating incident info “from the beginning” but fails to mention a 13-hour and a 15-hour gap during the first two nights of the rapidly spreading fire. One recommendation is to explore feasibility of alternate communications methods.Thereport does recommend that incident management teams be briefed on the importanceof timely,accurate emergency info to the public.
Witnesses have also said they saw firefighting aircraft turn away from Lake Morena due to lack of water, that was drained by the city of San Diego. They voiced outrage in a planning group meeting in Campo. They have started a petition and are considering legal action. There is no discussion of whether homes or lives might have been saved if the lake had adequate water for firefighters.
The County's report does make a few other recommendations,such as improving considering overnight staffing for the Office of Emergency Services, providinginfo updates for people in shelters and asuring the RedCross is included int he process of identifying shelters.
Despite the many public concerns however, the county’s After Action Report Summary states:”On the whole, San Diego County’s response to the Border Fire was productive, capable, efficient and well-coordinated. As with all disasters, the County actively seeks opportunities for improvement and those will be documented here.”
But it’s hard to see how the County can make a serious effort to improve even the most grievous problems faced by residents before future wildfires occur, when it has failed to document severe shortcomings and community concerns in its Border Fire After Action Report.
The solution may be to change the process itself, by including not only assessments by agencies, but expanding to include recommendations made by a panel of citizens from the burned areas in the county's after-fire reports.
Update: A Sept. 27 meeting at 2 p.m. has been scheduled in the Potrero Library on Border Fire issues for those who wish to have their voices heard.
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