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Displaced East County families at Steele Canyon High School scanned the television screens for news of their ranches and rural homes — news they didn’t see, said Sheriff’s Chaplain Randy Yenter.

“After about an hour watching TV, they realize there’s not as much attention down here,” Yenter said, snacking on orange slices arrayed on a Styrofoam plate. “We don’t have the big homes they have in North County. And it raises their frustration and anxiety.”

Here, families feared losing horses and chickens nearly as much as losing their homes. Maria McDolld sipped a bottled water at the school, waiting for a friend who’d rushed back to Dulzura, trying to save his exotic birds.

“He loves his animals,” said McDolld, a Los Angeles resident visiting San Diego County for a now-blighted vacation. She fled her friend’s home at 3:30 a.m. this morning, when flames neared the house. Asked how far away the fire was, she points to a nearby tree, roughly 30 yards away. “He’d give his life for his animals.”

No one wanted for food — not even the animals. Bags of dog food lay slumped against the school walls, across from shoulder-high pallets of bottled water and boxes of pizza. But the lack of information frustrated some rural residents, especially one Spanish-speaking couple who didn’t hear of the fire before it reached them.

“No one told us anything,” said Cecilia Zimmermann Rada in Spanish, sprawled with her husband Saul on the grass outside Steele Canyon High School. Alongside her was a dog carrier, loaded with squirming three-week-old puppies. “We left everything, and we’re going to lose everything.”

The Radas, who rely on a single satellite dish at their ranchita in Dulzura, hadn’t heard a word about the fire until a sheriff’s deputy knocked on their door last night, and pointed to the smoke-thick skies. The couple slept in Saul’s car, with the puppies, four other dogs and three children in tow. Left behind were their birth certificates, Cecilia’s station wagon and most of her clothing, she said, pointing to the battered slippers on her feet. Fortunately, she did retrieve Saul’s medications — though she’s worried about getting refills from the clinic in Chula Vista, another area now recommended for evacuation.

“Everything was so quick. So devastating,” Rada said, switching to English. “They told us, and 10 minutes later we could see the fire.”

For others, the evacuation process was almost routine. Though Jamul residents Harold and Elvia Rucker and their adult daughter Nia didn’t have to evacuate during the Cedar Fire in 2003, the massive blaze shook them, and convinced them to hatch their emergency plan. Monday, when the knock on their door came, Harold Rucker “made a beeline” for a folder of important papers, said Elvia Rucker; Nia grabbed her law school textbooks.

“You look at your closet,” said Elvia Rucker, “and the value of things is suddenly not as important.”

EMILY ALPERT

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