(Welcome Miriam, an award winning journalist to Calitics. More info from on the ground there, following up on my post earlier today. Note: I moved some stuff below the fold. – promoted by Julia Rosen)
Potrero, California, the town that has gained national attention for standing up against Blackwater Worldwide’s plan to build a private military-style training camp in their pristine backcountry community east of San Diego, now faces an even more formidable force. The Harris wildfire which began outside Potrero early Sunday morning has ravaged the small rural community, where many residents remain trapped without supplies four days after the fire began.
“It’s like the Kalahari Desert as you drive down Potrero Valley Road. There are sand dunes everywhere-dirt and ash,” Jan Hedlun reported via cell phone on Tuesday. “We can’t get in or out, and we are running out of supplies.” This morning, however, Hedlun said food will be provided to beleaguered residents at the old Volunteer Fire Department Building. The County recently began initiating its fire consolidation plan, closing some rural volunteer firefighting departments. But here in Potrero, some residents complained that they never saw a single fire engine until long after their homes burned down.
Stretches where homes once stood along Highway 94 have been reduced to wasteland. Many homes have burned, although the town’s store, library, and Post Office are still standing. “There is looting going on up here,” said Hedlun. Another source described Potrero as a “moonscape with houses here and there.”
Many Potrero residents never received reverse 911 calls warning them to evacuate. Some rely on cell phones, which were not included in the evacuation system.
“It’s like Armageddon,” said Jill Michaels, who had just four minutes to pack belongings before fleeing flames that singed her husband. She and her family tried to evacuate but found all roads blocked. She returned to witness her Potrero home burn to the ground.
Others suffered worse losses. Tom Varshock died trying to save his home on the Potrero/Tecate boundary. His son remains hospitalized with burns over 50% of his body.
Fires continue to burn on two sides of Potrero, blocking roads in and out. For the moment, Hedlun assured me this morning, she and others believe they are safe. Hurricane-force winds that howled through the mountain area on Sunday night have now calmed, giving firefighters cautious optimism to believe the fires may be contained by this weekend.
Portions of the Cleveland National Forest and Hauser Wilderness area adjoining the Blackwater site are believed to have burned, Hedlun said, though residents have not been permitted near the area yet. Hedlun said. Military C130 aircraft arrived late yesterday, dropping fire retardant onto the forest, which provides critical habitat for wildlife.
Blackwater’s 824-acre site in Round Potrero Valley, which survived the initial blaze, may also have burned last night. “There is a haze of smoke rising above it this morning,” Hedlun informed me at 10:00 a.m. today (Wednesday).
Brian Bonfiglio, vice president of Blackwater West, said Blackwater remains determined to build its planned facility despite the wildfire’s devastation. Those plans include 11 firing ranges for small and large caliber weapons, an emergency vehicular training track, bunkhouses for 200 trainees, additional training facilities and a large armory to stockpile ammunition.
“I see a tactical operation center for East County fires,” said Bonfiglio, noting that Blackwater’s proposal includes water tanks capable of holding 35,000 gallons. “Can you imagine how much of a benefit it would be if we were operational now?”
Opponents of Blackwater have suggested that live-fire operations could heighten the risk of fire starting in the box canyon where Blackwater seeks to locate and note that fires have been started by live-fire at military bases in the past. The Courage Campaign has mounted a petition calling on Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to oppose Blackwater’s base in Potrero for reasons including the proposed facility’s location in a “fire-prone landscape http://www.courageca….
Bonfiglio maintains that shooting areas will have berms, cleared surrounding areas, and a standby fire watch person with fire equipment on hand. No flares or explosives will be used, he said.
But even a fire started off-site could become an inferno, critics contend, if it were to reach the armory full of ammunition at Blackwater’s site.
Blackwater has sought approval for its project under the County’s new “shelter in place” policy. The valley, which has only one road in and one road out, would include a 9,600 square foot facility equipped with sprinklers and surrounded by enhanced fire modification zone. Blackwater has offered to shelter townspeople in its facility in event of a future fire.
But one Potrero resident who remained in town despite evacuation orders observed, “There is no way in hell anyone up here would want to go there during a fire.” Evacuation would have been required from the valley as fire leap-frogged across the area, said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the blaze, one of several major wildfires now burning throughout San Diego County. Combined, the fires have forced evacuation of over half a million people – more than fled New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. With over a billion dollars in property damage and 1,500 homes burned countywide, the fires are now the worst in California history.
The Harris fire raises many troubling issues with regard to the fate of the Blackwater project.
Hedlun confirmed that Potrero residents will likely request a new Environmental Impact Report be filed, since much critical wildlife habitat and watershed areas have burned. The original EIR was expected to be completed in December, followed by a vote of the San Diego County Planning Commission and ultimately, the County Board of Supervisors.
Those votes would rely in part on an advisory vote cast by the Potrero Planning Group in favor of the Blackwater project. Angry residents had mounted a recall election of all pro-Blackwater planners. That election, set for December 11th, was slated to be a mandatory vote-by-mail election with ballots going out in early November.
San Diego’s Registrar of Voters, Debra Seiler, has not yet responded to an inquiry asking whether the recall election may be postponed because of the fire, or how she intends to assure that voters who lost homes or have been displaced will receive ballots and be able to cast their votes. At least two planners facing recall have lost their homes. Fates of some candidates running on a “Save Potrero” anti-Blackwater slate remain unknown. Some voters now face divided loyalties, sympathizing with neighbors who lost homes and another planner facing recall who reportedly saved several houses from burning.
Residents in Potrero, scarred by internal strife and fire, now seek time to heal. Hedlun held out hope that Blackwater may yet decide to abandon its plan to open up a training camp in Potrero.
“For now,” she concluded, “We are digging out, cleaning up, and looking to see what’s left.”