People Burn Here

People Burn Here

Immigrants are the invisible victims of the California wildfires.


The most heartbreaking sign in California can be found at Doghouse Junction, near the summit of fire-scarred Otay Mountain. It is a simple, chilling image of a family desperately fleeing flames. Anyone encountering the sign will instantly understand its meaning: people burn here.

Otay Mountain and its border-straddling sister, Tecate Peak, offer refuge to legally protected trees, birds and butterflies, but the militarization of the border and the recent wildfires have so defaced the landscape that it is difficult to recognize the underlying natural beauty. The views of San Diego-Tijuana and their entangled destinies remain superb, but otherwise Doghouse Junction looks like a NATO firebase in the Pamirs: a helicopter landing pad, occasional National Guard Humvees and ever-lurking migra SUVs.

The Otay-Tecate wilderness is Tijuana’s backdoor to San Diego, now that the front door at San Ysidro has been bolted shut by Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper and the Bush Administration’s re-erection of the Berlin wall. From the perspective of immigrants, these mountains may seem an obvious alternative to the deserts of Imperial County or Arizona. The promised land of construction jobs and sweatshops is enticingly close at hand, and a greenhorn would easily underestimate the terrain.

In fact, the real choice is between furnace and labyrinth. La migra usually aren’t crazy enough to descend into the treacherous maze of canyons and ravines through which the coyotes guide their clients. They simply park on the truck trails and wait for people to emerge from the shadows, like lazy hunters jacklighting deer. Sometimes they are joined by their unsolicited allies and fans, the Minuteman Project and its feral splinter groups, including a few gun-toting loners who permanently stalk the border.

Scores of immigrants have died in recent years, in various ways, but the most excruciating death is by wildfire, which can overtake its victims in a few minutes or stalk them for hours before they stumble, writhing in the infernal brush.

The border mountains are highly combustible, and on October 21, exactly as predicted by some meteorologists, gale-force Santa Ana winds produced an eerie reprise of the massive 2003 conflagration. Satellite cameras captured the stunning image of giant smoke columns blown far out into the Pacific. From space, all of Southern California seemed to be sending smoke signals to the moon. Yet only the celebrity evacuations in Malibu and, later, the mass exodus from the affluent, heavily Republican suburbs of northern San Diego County were deemed worthy of bold headlines in most newsrooms.

The Harris fire, in a largely blue-collar backcountry stereotyped for decades as San Diego’s Appalachia as well as an infamous “corridor for illegal immigrants,” rated only whispers and grudging end-of-article references in the Southern California media. Yet the greatest human tragedy of the week took place there, where the fire engulfed what has been described as a “migrant camp” and “undocumented immigrants crossing the border.” Eleven people, badly burned, were hospitalized, and a few days later agents discovered four charred bodies. The Harris fire is now contained, but the remains of other victims may yet be discovered in the funeral pyre of chaparral.

The fire also roared into the hamlet of Tecate, killing one and forcing immigration officers to flee the border post, setting off a red alert. Several hundred Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops were dispatched to seal the border. According to the LA Times, “more than 200 migrants,” some “smoked out of ravines,” were arrested. La migra seem to have temporarily scoured the area of its long-established immigrant population, achieving the kind of ethnic cleansing for which nativists have long agitated.

If such a thing as a negative Pulitzer Prize existed, it would undoubtedly be won by the San Diego Union-Tribune, which headlined a “looter threat” when not a single arrest had been reported, then gave gasoline to Internet arsonists with a wildly inaccurate tale–later retracted–of Mexicans “looting” Qualcomm Stadium. (The infinitely more responsible Spanish-language Los Angeles daily La Opinión said the incident was actually a misunderstanding over diapers–although it led to several deportations by conveniently available immigration agents.)

The pain of the 1,100 or so families who lost homes (but, with two exceptions, not lives) in the largely affluent suburbs should not blot out the deeper tragedy of the Harris fire or obscure the trampling of human rights by federal and local officials. It is intolerable to think that the only monument to the Harris victims will be that sinister little sign on Otay Mountain.

Ad Policy