Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 | Monica DeLao frantically clicked through her television channels Monday, trying to find word of the fires creeping toward her boyfriend’s home in San Ysidro.

When she found it, those words were in Spanish.

“Univision was the only station that emphasized it,” said DeLao, a National City resident who spent the day volunteering at Chula Vista High School, one of only two South Bay evacuation sites. “Everything else is still focused on the people in North County.”

Chastened for their low-key coverage of the 2003 Cedar Fire, Spanish-language television and radio stations had another go at it in this year’s disaster. Telemundo and Univision joined forces Monday, streaming life-or-death information on evacuations, road closures and shelter sites in the tongue their viewers understand. NBC offered Spanish news updates between its English broadcast, winning praise from Latino leaders.

But the major Spanish stations didn’t start continuous coverage of the fire until Monday, endangering Spanish-speakers in Ramona and Potrero, where the first two blazes started Sunday and gained steam as residents went to bed Sunday evening. And Spanish-speakers haven’t been as well-served by city communications, some complain. Memos from the cities of San Diego and Chula Vista haven’t been translated into Spanish, forcing bilingual volunteers to step in.

Nearly one-fourth of San Diego County residents speak Spanish at home, according to the 2006 American Communities Survey. Just more than one-tenth of county residents can’t speak English well. San Diego fields at least five Spanish newspapers, nine Spanish radio stations and five Spanish television stations.

“The largest market in the city is Latinos, but no one’s talking to them on the city level,” said Fred Sotelo, board chairman of Casa Familiar Inc., a San Ysidro nonprofit that opened an evacuation center Tuesday. “Everything we get from the cities, we’re having to translate, nonstop. … And hey, that’s the work we do. But at the end of the day, it means

less funding for us.”

The 2007 wildfires literally hit closer to home for many Spanish-speakers than the Cedar Fire, said Marilyn Armenta, executive assistant for Uniradio. Her company operates five local Spanish-language radio stations.

These fires, unlike the Cedar Fire, stretched along the U.S.-Mexico border, affecting more Latino families than the blazes in San Diego’s upscale northern suburbs.

“It’s just a lot more intense, a lot closer to us, and it’s spreading all over,” Armenta said.

Blazes loomed east of Otay Mesa and harshened the air in San Ysidro, where elderly women hurried through the streets, clutching scarves and T-shirts to their mouths. No one needed to tell Angelina Torres that a fire was brewing.

“I have a tumor in my throat, and it hurts me so, it’s ugly,” said Torres, a dainty senior with a silver-shot braid trailing down her back, speaking in Spanish. She patted her throat. “Sunday, it was so cloudy and I had this pain, right here in my throat. That’s how I knew.”

Telemundo and Univision lagged behind the mainstream media somewhat, providing few details about the fires Sunday night, when the Harris Fire claimed its first death. By 5 a.m. Monday, the twin channels had teamed up, reporting 24 hours a day on the San Diego inferno.

“It doesn’t compare” to the stations’ Cedar Fire coverage, said Marisol Rosas, assignment managing editor for both Univision and Telemundo, which share a parent company. “We learned from the 2003 fire. We learned from our viewers that they needed to be informed. … Back then, there was bad communication between the agencies. We weren’t included in press conferences. It was really sad, because our Hispanic community were calling us and trying to get informed, and we didn’t get much information. Now, we don’t depend on anybody. We have our contacts and we’re calling, calling, calling until we get somebody.”

Others echoed Rosas’ remarks. Tania Luviano, anchor for Noticias Mi San Diego, spent the day issuing Spanish newscasts on NBC.

“Four years ago, a lot of the Spanish audience said they didn’t hear they had to leave their homes. They didn’t understand what was going on. This year, we anticipated that,” said Luviano, who usually broadcasts for only a half-hour a day. “We expanded our coverage throughout the day. And if we can save one life with this program, it’s worth it.”

Casa Familiar employee Monica Hernandez agreed. Fire newsflashes en español were more frequent, more detailed, and more up-to-date than in 2003.

“It’s a lot better than during the Cedar Fire,” she said.

Nearly every San Diegan is glued to the television this week. But during an emergency, television and radio bear even greater importance among monolingual Spanish-speakers, most of whom turn to television first, radio second, newspapers third and the Internet last — if at all, said Walter Meneses, president of Meneses Research and Associates, a Latino market research firm.

“TV is the champ,” he said. “You look at the TV Azteca commentary, and she’s talking about the fire, the flames, the fear and the sweat of the pilots, how they are working so hard, with the lack of visibility. The general media like Fox just gives you the information. … It’s like when you see a soccer commentary in Spanish. In English it’s so cold, it has no flavor.”

In San Ysidro, Juan Cruz was waiting inside his yellow-stucco home on the answers from Univision: Whether to stay or to go. Where to go. And where to drop off the carload of diapers that he’d heard shelter-bound seniors might require. Outside, two chickens fluttered in wire pens, as the skies overhead grew hazy.

“We’re not going out yet,” said Cruz, a mustachioed man in a baby-blue work shirt, emblazoned with his first name. “If something happens, we’ll let those birds out. Just fly out and away.”

Because Luviano’s viewers don’t use the Internet as much, she said, the station is flooded with phone calls, asking for specific information. Catering to their requests, NBC’s Spanish coverage of the fires has skewed southward compared to English news, said Meneses, as have newscasts on TV Azteca and Univision/Telemundo.

“People want to know if they have to leave their house. They say, ‘Show me a map. Show it to me in Spanish.’ … They’re relying heavily on TV,” Luviano said.

And rapid notice of evacuations is especially important for Latino families, who tend to be larger and share smaller homes, said Junuen Lugo, a reporter for Frontera, a Tijuana-based newspaper.

“In the north, people own their homes,” Lugo said. “Here (in San Ysidro), most of them rent, with three or four families to a home. So it’s a massive evacuation, with grandparents, great-grandparents, a big number in one family, trying to get out in maybe one car.”

Other, less tangible obstacles have threatened some Spanish-speaking residents. The San Ysidro shelter run by Casa Familiar was all-but-empty Tuesday night, as mandatory evacuations were dropped in Chula Vista. Teen volunteers dutifully daubed purple paint onto butcher-paper banners labeled “Books,” “Food,” “Registration” and “Hygiene.” Individually-wrapped cookies, granola bars and crackers and rows upon rows of bottled water mounted against the shelter wall, unconsumed.

“A lot of people are scared to come in, because they’re undocumented,” Sotelo said. “… Anyone is welcome here. But realistically, people fear to come this far. That’s the ugly reality.”

And others have skipped San Ysidro for Tijuana, seeking refuge in the homes of relatives and friends. At Casa Familiar’s shelter Tuesday, Dora Lopez was mulling whether to impose on her sister in Tijuana; Martha Preciado counted the friends who’d fled south from the flames.

Like many San Diegans, some evacuees at Casa Familiar tried to squeeze sense from the disaster through faith. To evacuee Gloria Rodriguez, bent over a slim book titled “Ayuda Divina” — Divine Help — the scenes on the television screens suggested an apocalypse, whether in Spanish or English.

“I’ve been thinking, maybe it’s the predictions of the Bible,” she said, speaking in Spanish. Her white-blonde hair was bound in an explosive topknot. “The world will go in fire, in blood, or water. Just look at what we’re seeing. Look at what’s happening.”

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

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