Monday, Oct. 22, 2007 | Outside his modest house in the tiny hamlet of Dulzura, J.L. Sirimanne, his breath heady with the sting of alcohol, raised his eyes to the gunship-gray mountains of smoke rising just to the east and let vent his frustration.

“What happened to all the airplanes? Maybe they just don’t care about us, because we’re down here next to Mexico. They don’t remember us, but I pay my taxes. Where are all the planes? Where are the helicopters with the water?” he said.

But on the ground, officials could offer no such help to Sirimanne and the thousands of other county residents flushed from their homes Sunday by two raging wildfires. The wind arrived with hurricane-like force, rapidly pushing jagged lines of fire across a bone-dry county and kicking up a blinding path behind it.

The region’s airborne firefighting tools, and many of its other traditional tactics, had been rendered worthless by ash-choked air and hot Santa Ana winds, nearly four years to the day of the region’s worst wildfire in history, the Cedar Fire. Low humidity, high winds and one of the driest years on record combined to create explosive conditions and recall haunting memories of the 2003 wildfires.

“There’s no stopping this fire, so the best we can do is get out of the way,” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob.

Back in Dulzura, behind Sirimanne, Arel Hernandez fidgeted with his dirty blue shirt and patted the patchy white horse tethered to his jeep. Hernandez had just come west, from the Harris Fire, down State Route 94. He had brought his friend’s horse, which he saved from the flames. He had to drive slowly, with his lights flashing, so the horse could keep up.

Next to him, her eyes wide and brown, Hernandez’s nine-year-old daughter Jessie clutched two of the half-dozen mongrel puppies scurrying around the courtyard and said she wasn’t scared.

But, two hours later, according to CalFire Battalion chief Dave Nissen, Dulzura had burned. Sirimanne’s house may have survived, but Nissen, who stopped for a breather at a fire station two or three miles further west on the 94 from Dulzura, didn’t think so.

“That’s all gone, long gone,” he said. “The fire’s coming. Right here, this will probably all be gone too by tomorrow morning.”

As the Harris Fire raged near the tiny rural town of Portrero on Sunday and gradually ate its way west down the valleys and hillsides that house the 94, the road itself took on an almost surreally important role. Fleets of sheriffs’ vehicles flew east towards the fires, their lights flashing. Fire trucks and support vehicles shuttled to and from the front. The firefighters, their faces blackened by the smoke, looked shell-shocked as they refilled the engines with water from hydrants.

And as the emergency vehicles snaked east, the residents came west. Huge recreational vehicles formed caravans and scurried out, away from the danger, their drivers often elderly, always looking worried. There were dozens of horse boxes, pulled by trucks and jeeps, some carrying several horses, and there were streams and streams of trucks, SUVs and cars, most of them loaded, some of them almost empty save for passengers who hooted at the fire trucks and shouted their support.

About six miles from the flames of the Harris Fire, a Border Patrol checkpoint had been reduced to a skeleton staff. The few agents left behind smoked cigarettes and swapped tidbits of information about the progress of the fire. In the distance, under an orange glow, the first red threads of fire could be seen dripping over the hilltops like molten lava.

Steve White, a supervisor with the Border Patrol, said at least one of the 14 people injured so far in the fire was an undocumented border crosser. One group of illicit border crossers, trapped by the flames, had sent ahead scouts to get help, he said. The scouts got a ride at the 94 with the Border Patrol, but they couldn’t say exactly where the others were, or how many there were.

“We’re still looking for them,” White said.

A little later, a team of agents could be seen donning black, fireproof gear and helmets and heading towards the flames on all-terrain vehicles.

Another Border Patrol agent scoffed when asked if all the undocumented border crossers had been accounted for. The Border Patrol never knows how many men and women are crawling and hiding in the hills, he said. When the wildfires come, however, the border crossers emerge, coughing out of the smoke and onto the freeway, looking for a ride from whoever will give them one. Often it’s the Border Patrol.

“This area is riddled with pathways that are used by illegal crossers,” said Cal Fire Spokesman Matt Streck. “The Border Patrol and fire service are doing what we can. We’re putting up helicopters and early in the morning we’re putting up more aircraft to look for them.”

By 10 p.m. Sunday, the Harris Fire and the Witch Fire had burned almost 20,000 acres according to official estimates. One person had died, four firefighters were in hospital and 13 civilians had been injured. All injuries were from the Harris Fire. And near Ramona, the Witch Fire continued to spread out toward more populated areas.

New evacuations were being ordered by the hour as the fires spread into new territory. By the end of the day Sunday, city of San Diego officials were predicting it would spread over city limits in the early hours.

At a press conference Sunday evening, county of San Diego officials expressed concern that the fires could become as serious as the Cedar Fire, which burned more than 280,000 acres in 2003 and killed 15 people.

“These two fire events have the potential to possibly be worse than the Cedar Fire,” Jacob said.

Unlike the Cedar Fire, these fires struck during the day, not at night, giving many awake and alert residents a chance to collect themselves and scatter to safety.

Still, the extreme winds and poor visibility left firefighters unable to fly helicopters or airplanes. The strong winds moved the fire oftentimes faster than trucks could drive, rendering firefighters incapable of fighting the fire head-on.

“We knew these conditions were coming and this morning our fears were realized,” said Bill Metcalf, area fire coordinator.

The air, thick with ash and the musty stench of wildfire, was declared “unhealthy” and officials warned residents to stay inside and use air conditioners whenever possible.

The fire wasn’t expected to calm until the Santa Ana winds stop blowing. That was predicted to be sometime late Monday or early Tuesday.

“We just aren’t going to get these fires under control anytime soon,” said Ron Lane, direction of the Office of Emergency Services.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had also declared a state of emergency in Southern California late Sunday night and said he would be traveling to the area Monday to survey the damage. Pleas had also been made for President Bush to declare a federal state of emergency.

“We all know what happened during the Cedar Fire and the same events are happening,” Jacob said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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