Four Charred Bodies Found In Migrant Camp
By ELLIOT SPAGAT – Associated Press Writer
Published 5:20 pm PDT Thursday, October 25, 2007
Four charred bodies were found Thursday in what is believed to be a migrant camp just east of San Diego in an area ravaged by wildfires.
The bodies were found in a wooded section near Barrett Junction, along the Mexican border in unincorporated San Diego County, said Paul Parker, a spokesman for the San Diego County medical examiner’s office.
It was unclear how long ago the victims died or if they were victims of this week’s ferocious wildfires that have killed at least three other people. They were tentatively identified as three men and one woman.
“They could have been out there a while,” Parker said.
The area was burned by the Harris Fire, the same blaze that claimed the life of a 52-year-old man who refused to leave his house in nearby Tecate when the area was evacuated Sunday.
The bodies were discovered as authorities were beginning to allow tens of thousands of people, evacuated earlier in the week, back into areas where more than 482,000 acres – about 753 square miles – have been blackened by fires that began breaking out late Saturday.
So far three people have been confirmed killed by the fires. Seven other people died of various causes after being evacuated.
In all, about 1,800 homes have been lost to the blazes.
Thousands of homes remained threatened on Thursday as fires continued to burn out of control, mainly in San Diego County and the Lake Arrowhead mountain resort area. Firefighters had contained the large Los Angeles County blazes that blackened thousands of acres earlier in the week.
Earlier Thursday, during a visit to one of the hardest hit areas, President Bush put his arm around Kendra Jeffcoat, one of the many people who had lost their homes.
“We want to let you know that the American people care for people like you who are suffering,” he said as Jeffcoat fought back tears. “We appreciate your spirit, we really do. I think all of us who met you were very impressed by your determination to deal with this tough moment in your life and rebuild your lives.”
As Bush spoke in San Diego County’s suburban Rancho Bernardo area, firefighters aided by calmer winds and cooler temperatures continued to fight for the upper hand on some of the region’s most severe fires.
In the meantime, mandatory evacuation orders were lifted for most residential areas of San Diego, and emergency shelters began to empty at a rapid rate.
Still, some areas were too dangerous to return to, and in some areas evacuation orders were still being issued. Among them was one section south of San Diego where rural communities on the Mexican border were under threat.
“It’s all slowed down a lot but there will be some runs up the hills so we have to watch that,” said Capt. John Hisaw of the Lakeside Fire Department.
Elsewhere on the fire lines, crews were making major progress, aided by a massive aerial assault that resumed on Wednesday after Santa Ana winds, which had gusted as high as 100 mph or more earlier in the week, subsided.
Record high temperatures of recent days also began succumbing to cooling sea breezes, allowing firefighters to contain two blazes that burned 21 homes in northern Los Angeles County.
So far losses from the fires total more than $1 billion in San Diego County alone, where officials said 1,470 homes have been destroyed along with a third of the state’s avocado crop.
The losses are only half as high as those in Southern California’s 2003 fires, but are certain to rise as more damages are totaled throughout the region.
At their height, this week’s fires forced more than 500,000 people to flee, the largest mass evacuation in California history.
With many of those people now leaving shelters, San Diego County spokeswoman Lesley Kirk said authorities were moving into recovery mode.
She said local assistance centers, with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on hand, were being established in three of the county’s most devastated communities: Fallbrook, Ramona and Rancho Bernardo.
Even with the slackening winds, the county remains a tinderbox. Firefighters cut fire lines around sections of the major blazes in San Diego County, but none of the four fires was more than 40 percent contained. More than 8,500 homes were still threatened.
Towns scattered throughout the county remained on the edge of disaster, including the apple-picking region around Julian, where dozens of homes burned in 2003. Authorities also evacuated Jamul, an upscale community of about 6,000 in a hilly region about 20 miles east of San Diego.
David and Brandy Hradecky, who defied evacuation orders with their daughters, said a small percentage of residents chose not to evacuate in Jamul. They spent the past few days working with firefighters to save their neighbors’ homes.
David Hradecky said he spent 2 1/2 days using his bulldozer to create firebreaks around seven homes and said his young daughters even used 5-gallon buckets to put out hotspots and quench the thirst of farm animals that had been left behind.
“Where are you going to go? They were evacuating the evacuee places. We know what to do. We took care of all the people’s houses,” said Brandy Hradecky.
In the Lake Arrowhead resort area, where two wildfires had destroyed more than 300 homes, fire officials said 16,000 homes were still threatened Thursday.
Both fires remained out of control, but were being bombarded by aerial tankers and helicopters.
The total burn area stretches in a broad arc from Ventura County north of Los Angeles east to the San Bernardino National Forest and south to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the middle of that arc is the Santiago Fire in Orange County, which has burned nearly 23,000 acres and destroyed nine homes. Only 30 percent contained Thursday, it is believed to be the result of arson. It had been 50 percent contained Wednesday, but firefighters lost ground overnight as it moved into the Cleveland National Forest.
Agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were sent to help investigate the fire. Authorities said a smaller, more recent fire in Riverside County also is linked to arson.
Four men, in San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, have been arrested this week after police said witnesses saw them igniting other small fires that were quickly extinguished. None of the four have been linked to the large blazes.
At least 40 firefighters and 35 other people have been injured because of the fires.
Eight Indian reservations – La Jolla, Rincon, San Pasqual, Pauma, Pala, Barona, Capitan Grande and Mesa Grande – have been damaged, with evacuation centers set up for tribal members.
The first person killed by the fires was Thomas Varshock, 52, of Tecate, whose body was found Sunday at his home.
The bodies of John Christopher Bain, 58, and his 55-year-old wife, Victoria Fox, were discovered hours apart, on Wednesday and Thursday, in their hilltop home in suburban Escondido.
Neighbors told officials they last saw the couple around midnight Monday when they told them to evacuate.
“They were wonderful human beings – wonderful people who loved their family,” said a relative who asked not to be identified.
The relative said the couple met as students at nearby Poway High School but didn’t marry until decades later, in the 1980s, after dating for seven years.
Sheriff’s deputies found one of the charred bodies in the home’s rubble Wednesday night and the other Thursday morning.
The bodies discovered Thursday afternoon were found by Border Patrol agents patrolling an area near a major corridor for illegal immigrants who often walk hours, or even days, to cross into the United States from Mexico.
About the writer:
* Associated Press Writers Allison Hoffman in San Diego, Martha Mendoza in Running Springs, Scott Lindlaw in Julian, Gillian Flaccus in Jamul and Thomas Watkins, Jacob Adelman, Chelsea J. Carter and Jeremiah Marquez in Los Angeles contributed to this report