Border Fire: Some Questions

Exclusive Investigative Report from Reporting San Diego.

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Fire Begins…

The Border fire started on June 19, during Father’s Day, east of the 188, which leads to the Tecate border crossing. It also started slightly east of Emery road, and Highway 94. It started near a property and CAL FIRE and we still do not have a cause for the start. CAL FIRE at first thought it would be able to control it. For the first hour or so first responders believe they had it under control. This was what we were told by Public Information Officers from the agency.

The fire soon spread and jumped containment lines, and jumped Highway 94. From radio transmissions CAL FIRE started to alert utilities, such as San Diego Gas and Electric, since they knew this had potential for a major incident. When we arrived on scene around three in the afternoon, and drove though the California Highway Patrol checkpoint, the fire was on both sides of the 94, and smoke was quite thick and rising to the sky.

Witnesses told us that for the first hour they saw fire personnel “just standing there.” We were told this happened over the course of the fire, at other places. We raise this issue, because according to neighbors the fire could have been stopped. We are giving voice to their feelings and views. We have no way to confirm either.

The fire ended up scorching 7,609 acres, burning 5 homes, damaging a 6th one and destroying 11 other structures. It also flashed over one property where two people died. These are Jim and Kyrie Keefe. More on that bellow.

The fire led to mandatory evacuations. We requested public records on this, mostly driven by a few residents telling us that either officers never came to their homes, or only got out of their vehicles and placed yellow tape on posts. As one resident put it, how were they to know that yellow tape means you need to evacuate? Having done rescue and evacuations I know the tape was placed to let other responders know that a contact had been made, not to waste time for other responders. At times the other means is spray paint. If only tape was placed, and no contact actually made, that should be problematic. This is a story we heard from more than a few residents.

We asked if the Sheriff’s department, the primary agency conducting the notices, if they had a master log of addresses contacted. We specifically asked for that master log. We were informed by the department that such a log was not maintained. During the chaos of a disaster that happens, but we were also told that addresses where people were not evacuating were noted in the dispatch log. It is not our roll to question these decisions the day after, and just relaying that at some point there was an obvious breakdown in communications. Residents were not aware of the meaning of that yellow tape, and at least some residents did not know the meaning of that yellow tape on posts. The question was simple, does that yellow tape… means we need to evacuate?

The Keefe’s, what do we know?

The County posted their vitals in their Medical Examiner report, Jim Keefe was 53 years old, and was a resident of Potrero. Kylie’s relatives have not been notified yet, so all they have is that she was 48 years old. From residents in the area we know that she was Canadian, from the province of Saskatchewan. That is a large province,

We also know from residents that she had four adult children from a previous marriage and that both “met” on the Internet. She decided to come down to San Diego and join Jim. They were pretty much to themselves, and quite reclusive. They also lived off the grid and on minimum resources. They lived on a camper on the property, which was shared with a large pack of dogs. Some of these dogs, according to neighbors, were dropped off by city folks, who did not want their dogs anymore. Regardless, they cared for a large group, anywhere from 9 to 15 dogs. Some are still open for adoption at Bonita Shelter.

Jim had a sister and a brother, and her sister came to a celebration of their life held last weekend. During that celebration we learned a few more details. Jim was a person who never gave up, and was fully hands on. He fixed his engines, and he built a few ovens for clay sculptures and other things, and also made Pizza. They had a small garden, and had big plans for improving the property they lived on since 2003. They both also spent many hours together doing arts and crafts.
In short, they loved to live life to their fullest. They also loved the freedom that living in the back country provided them, and yes, they loved their dogs. So when they did not come back, that raised immediate alarms among neighbors.

Jim also liked to spend a lot of time at the library, and liked gardening. He also hiked those mountains, and he was called “barefoot Jim” by community members since he did not wear shoes most of the time. That includes while hiking the hills around the property.

So what about the property? The story goes that at one point it had a miner’s cabin, made from stones. The cabin collapsed at some point, perhaps as early as the 1970s fire. Potrero is an area that has burns every so often. This is a risk that people take living in the area, and it is part of the natural order, since some plants require high temperatures to sprout. A good example is the manzanita that grows all over the area. There is a nice grove of trees up a dirt path, where birds come and go. That is the heart of the property. Down from that area was the van that many have seen in news video and we posted. That van could not move the day of the fire. It’s transmission failed a few days before.

Behind the property are the hills that to the north that ring the small Bell Valley. During wetter years there are also a couple creeks, which explain the trees. The mine, still on a topographic map, is slightly to the east of the property. This is rugged terrain, where scrub and brush grows, and where Hawks fly over often, looking for bunnies and squirrels and other small prey. This is a difficult land that locals love, and both Jim and Kyrie did love the land.

This hills to the north, about 200 yards from the flat area on the property, is where a local volunteer search party found them, together, with Kyrie trying to furrow under Jim. It was a good walk up a somewhat steep incline, and they were found in a slight gully. This is a gully that their dogs kept going back to, according to witnesses.

 

Photos of June 19, both the plume at distance, and the thick smoke on the 94
From what we understand, the fire burned over the property the first day of the fire. According to CAL FIRE, the fire burned about 5 miles, including the property. That day the smoke was so thick at points, that you could not see much on the 94. We might theorize what happened, or why they decided to run up to where they likely died, but all that would be speculation. The facts are that the fire burned hot and burned fast, and that smoke was very thick. The other fact is that it was a very hot day, with a temperature of 114 degrees, according to our own jeep thermometer. The fact is that after the fire burned over the property none saw them alive again.
While we believe they died on or around the 19, their neighbors noticed they were missing as early as the 24, or soon after the mandatory evacuations were lifted. We know this from a few details. The first was that neighbors started to take care of the dogs and feed the dogs. Though the first dog from the property to be rescued, this was done by Joe Little of Channel 10 and Animal control perhaps on the 20.

Nancy Cressie was among the neighbors who started to take care of the dogs. She asked a San Diego Gas and Electric crew if they could open the gate, so she could bring in feed to take care of the animals. They did such, they also need access to replace the burned utility poles.

We heard other similar stories, but from an email exchange with the County by Kim Hamilton we did learn that the community “has tried and tried to get an official search party organized since evacuation orders were lifted and the couple never returned.” These orders were lifted on June 24.

Julie Salmons had a few exchanges with the County, though the first one we had access to from a public records request, was dated on the 28. In that email Salmons writes “This is inconceivable to us. A WEEK! A news reporter was there meeting with residents for 3 hours. It has become abundantly clear that despite of the info we have given you, you are not interested in the life of this man, or the suffering of the animals still dying on his land or anybody living in that town.”

The frustration was not limited to just them. Claudia Millibrang told us that she told deputies that the Keefe’s were missing. None had seen Jim. She was assured by a Search and Rescue specialist on the 29, before the bodies were found, that they had leads. At one point she was told that there was a sighting of Jim near or at the Campo railroad tracks.

This lead to us asking a specific question about this from the Sheriff’s Department. Given that they were engaged in a search for a missing person, one would think that this sighting would have been logged somewhere. We specially requested that document. This document was not produced since it does not exist. So one has to ask if the officer was engaging in hearsay? It does raise important questions about procedures as well.

Leann Mitsui went to the Command Center on the 26, and relayed to us that she was told by officers that unless she was there in an official capacity, they did not want to hear about it. They said that she needed to have a CAL FIRE badge or any other badge. This is a citizen, trying to get the department to search for people who are missing.

Neighbors spoke about dogs that were seen on the property, going back and forth from where the the bodies were found. In fact, the search party used those dog tracks partially on the 29. We had that from postings on social media. Stephanie Riverburgh posted as much on Facebook on June 29. “On the way up I immediately notice lots of dog tracks. I continue to follow until I do not see them. Once their tracks stopped I turned around and happened to see one of the dogs scampering away down the mountain. I immediately follow. As I am following, the smell hits me like a ton of bricks. The unmistakeable smell of death.”

What she posts next is a reflection of what we also witnessed. She did call down that she smelled something, Four other volunteers did climb up, not trained rescue workers, nor in some cases familiar with hiking. We did watch law enforcement stand there. This added to the frustration.

There was another element as to why the neighbors were frustrated and it was revealed in the official statement from the Department on the 29th. We feel it is best to quote it in full again:

Remains Found – Border Fire

Subsequent to the Border Fire near the Mexican Border human remains were found in the 28000 block of Highway 94 in Potrero. The address was under mandatory evacuation when the Border Fire broke out on June 19th.

A deputy from the Campo Sheriff’s Substation was first notified about the couple possibly missing on Sunday, June 26th. The concerned citizen had no information on the address of the couple or their names.
The next day (June 27th) Red Cross provided a deputy with the couple’s address. The deputy immediately opened a missing person’s report and searched the property with CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) personnel. They searched five structures, two vehicles, a trailer and the grounds, but did not locate the missing couple. As part of a missing person investigation, deputies also searched local hospitals and jails for the couple. The couple was entered into a national missing persons database.

On Tuesday, June 28th, Sheriff’s Bomb/Arson along with CAL FIRE continued the search on the property. Sheriff’s Search and Rescue (SAR) was scheduled to send a search dog, but it was diverted to Valley Center for a missing person at risk.

On Wednesday morning, June 29th Search and Rescue was planning to undertake a more comprehensive search and was meeting with deputies regarding the search area when local residents who launched their own search found the remains.

Identification of the remains, notification of the family, as well as cause and manner of death will be determined by the Medical Examiner’s Office.

What caught our attention immediately was that the department was scheduled to send a dog to search the property on the 28. That dog was diverted to Valley Center to search for a person at risk. Given this had likely become a recovery operation, and Valley Center was still a rescue operation, the living always take precedence over the dead. This is classic triage. But this immediately raised a question. Does the department only have ONE, a single K9 team? This also led to a request for data. In other words, how many dogs does the department have? Here is the response we got. It only detailed the law enforcement dogs.
Mind you, in a pinch these dogs can be used.
This is part of the response from the Department:

We currently have a total of 26 working canine teams; a “team” consisting of a dog and handler. All of our canine teams are trained first and foremost to seek out and apprehend criminal subjects. All canines are trained in a secondary discipline of either human tracking or narcotics detection. We do not have any explosives detection canine teams, nor do we have any rescue or cadaver canine teams. The breakdown is as follows:

13 criminal apprehension/tracking canine teams.
11 criminal apprehension/narcotics detection canine teams.
2 criminal apprehension/tracking/narcotics detection canine teams.

It might be the way we asked, but the department also has access to specifically trained rescue and cadaver dogs. This is according to their own material at the Sheriffs’ office.

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue K-9 Unit has been in existence for over 30 years. Teams are available 24 hours a day to respond to local, state and federal law enforcement as well as other public service agency requests.

DSC_3692

During the Pride parade we saw two, with handler, and we know a Golden Retriever was sent to Oceanside for the cliff collapse. So that makes at least 2 K9 teams. The website is quite specific that the department has access to both rescue and cadaver dogs, as well as disaster dogs. So the assets existed, and it was more than one team.

 

Winnie Silvestro told us on June 29, that if this had happened in La Jolla, the response would have been vastly different. The response at Oceanside when the K-9 was on site within an hour, seemed to prove her point.

Moreover, it was not just Reporting San Diego that relayed concerns about these events to Supervisor Jacob’s office. We know from the email chain, that this was also relayed by Joe Little, a reporter from Channel 10. East County Magazine did not contact the county, but they covered another aspect of this story. This was the crisis that developed in bringing food and water to animals (and people) who chose to stay during the fire, or were not evacuated. So did Hamilton, who organized this relief effort for her community neighbors at Deerhorn Valley, in the rural area of Jamul. They were responsible for coordinating feed transfers with Iris Gardener of Potrero.

Many of the residents did highlight an important aspect of this. The Border Patrol was extremely helpful during the fire, and in fact was instrumental in getting the feed across a checkpoint manned by California Highway Patrol. None of the residents had a good thing to say about the Sheriff office.

The Bigger Picture

There is an elephant in this room, one that is not that nice. Silvestro did point to it. This elephant is called poverty. First off, Potrero is almost 60 miles from downtown San Diego. It is a rural area by the border with Mexico. It is also quite under developed. Some roads are currently paved, such as highway 94 and a few of the spurs, such as Harris Ranch Road. But many of the roads are not paved, and in many cases are not maintained by the county. They are dirt roads, and some are not even in our electronic copy of the topographic map of the area.

The data that we have, and has been graphed, is from 2013. What it reveals is that area residents have a poverty rate of 60.8 percent. The state average is 22.1 percent. 9.9 percent live with incomes under 50 percent of the federal poverty rate. The state average is 7.3. For clarification this is deep poverty.

Moreover, from again postings on Social Media, we know that residents feel the Sheriff’s’ Department does not care about them, because they live in a remote rural area. A few of the residents spoke about a change they noticed after the implementation of the Stonegarden program in 2009. This was meant to stop the trafficking of drugs across the U.S.-Mexican boarder. This was a federal program with the formation of a task force that also includes San Diego Police Department, with officers joined to work together in task forces. Why those two departments? They both cover the border.

Local residents no longer see officers who are engaging in community policing, but aggressive policing. There is a difference. This also reflects officers who did not pay attention to the reports from residents. In fact, residents have the feeling that police and officials do not care about them.

This is part of a national trend, with rural areas getting less of the national pie in both direct government services and other needs. There are plenty of indirect services, but many of them are not directly felt by residents. These include things like grants for extractive industries.
There is another aspect, and this is a critical question to ask. Residents felt as if deputies not only had a lack of respect for them, but outright lied to them. In 1969 Frazier v Cupp found that officers can indeed be deceptive during interrogations to obtain confessions. In recent years that has come under some pressure from lower state level courts.

For example in a recent New York case the court of appeals found that extremely coercive tactics do undermine the right of suspects to not self incriminate. We quote from a recent news story.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote that Troy investigators’ lies became “a set of highly coercive deceptions” as they tried for hours to coax a confession from Thomas.

Investigators told Thomas they would next pick up his wife if he didn’t confess to injuring his son. They told him that his child — though already brain dead, which Thomas didn’t know — would die if he didn’t explain how the boy hit his head, Lippman wrote. They also told Thomas 67 times it was an accident, 14 times that he wouldn’t be arrested, and eight times that he would be going home.

 

So what does this have to do with a fire? There is a question that needs to be raised. If officers can deceive suspects during questioning and the courts have found this to be fine, can this spread to day to day interactions between officers and civilians in every day contacts? The residents felt they were not respected, even believed. They also told us they felt they were lied to. A few relayed a story of a sighting at Campo that never happened. This is a bigger question, one that we believe needs asking.

The other is truly the heart of the question. Perception is reality. Poor communities, this is not just limited to Potrero, feel they are mistreated and ignored by government. This is the reality that people live under and one that should be considered by, in this case, County government. We personally watched incredulously, as rescue personnel stood by and did noting, while civilians found two bodies in 15 minutes. The community is still devastated by this.

One final important update. Jim’s sister did find Kyrie’s family in Canada. They will be laid to rest together.

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15 replies

  1. Yeah, we need to blame the citizen who reported the “sighting of Jim near or at the Campo railroad tracks” and mistook another community member for Barefoot Jim. It was false information and sent the whole search in the wrong direction. That guy looked like him but obviously was not! They should have taken a photo as everyone has a cell phone today with a camera. Geez, all those days wasted. Wish now it was never reported and that they would have listened to the evacuation orders and left when told to. I want to know why Smoke inhalation got them but not the dogs…weird. RIP

  2. Kyrie’s relatives have been notified. Contact was established on 7/13/16. Plans are being made as to when the bodies of Jim and Kyrie will be claimed.

  3. There are some very serious questions that remain to be answered. There are people in the sheriff’s department that need to be held accountable for their callous lack of concern for these 2 people and the community concerns. Their actions were shameful.

  4. THANK YOU so much . You are the one and only person to write an accurate account of this. Thank you not only for taking the time to be there during our search for Jim and Kyrie but also for attending ALL the meetings and continuing to search for answers .

  5. A very sad situation. Prayers for the two who lost their lives.

  6. Jim’s last Facebook post was on June 20th at 12:45 pm. This post included clear skies as well as a retardant dropping plane directly above him.

  7. Thank You Nadine. You have covered this story from day one. Not only covered it but provided support to those in need. For this we thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Thank you very much Nadine/Reporting San Diego for all your hard work in making sure you listened to the people on the ground so to speak, not just listening to law enfarcement. It sure does help to know that some one is caring about us out here in the back country & is working really hard to make this info available for others to know the truth of what is going on out here. What you are doing is helping me to feel that Jim & Kyrie death will not be in vain.

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