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El Cajon Quick to Scrub Up After Spraying

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Greg and Vicki Miles stood under their carport in El Cajon and took a quick inventory. Cars? Covered. Pets? In the house. Kids? In front of the television, watching “Apocalypse Now.”

The Miles family was as ready as it would ever be for what came next on Monday night: six helicopters, flying low and fast, dribbling poison into the night. The odd, sweet smell of malathion-and-corn syrup filled the air. But the roar of the six huge propellers soon faded. It was over.

“Can you see it?” Vicki Miles asked, venturing out to study her shrubs. She bent down and ran her fingers over her cement driveway. “I can’t see it.”

That, according to state officials, is just how they were hoping El Cajon residents would react to San Diego County’s first-ever aerial malathion spraying. The 90-minute mission that dumped pesticide over 16 square miles went swimmingly, they say, boding well for the two more applications scheduled for next month.

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“It went perfectly. We don’t foresee any changes when we do it again,” said Veda Federighi, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture, which is spraying to eradicate a suspected infestation of Mexican fruit flies, or Mexflies.

Despite people’s fears of a “big cloud that they can see and touch,” Federighi said, spot-checks showed that the pesticide was concentrated and distributed correctly--about 12.5 ounces of bait per acre--meaning the dreaded spray was nearly invisible as it fell.

Even before the tiny sticky droplets began to bead up on El Cajon’s windshields, however, another side-effect of the spraying was plain to see: a surge in the entrepreneurial spirit. “Open at 12 a.m. AFTER SPRAY!” said a sign outside Romeo Car Wash on Jamacha Road. “Cover Up From the Fly!” read one makeshift stand, where two out-of-town residents sold car covers.

Nearby, other El Cajon residents stood 10 deep at Mike Roach’s Chevron station, hoping to get one of his last disposable plastic car covers ($5.99 for mid-size, $6.99 for Cadillacs or small boats). Roach had been selling the covers since Saturday. But suddenly on Monday, after the state Court of Appeal declined to stay the spraying, business picked up.

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He sold 500 in four hours, returning twice for more to his supplier, a Seal Beach-based merchant who had set up shop temporarily at a Shell station down the road.

“I had no idea it would go like it did. It caught me completely off-guard,” said Roach, who was almost out of stock by 6:15 p.m. He looked relieved. “I’m going home.”

The anti-fly maneuvers lured the news media as well as vendors--a slew of scribblers, cameramen and on-air personalities who had not congregated in such numbers in El Cajon since 1988, when a Navy F-14A fighter jet crashed at Gillespie Field.

But journalists found that after the malathion-laden helicopters took off and the hundreds of protesters went home to take cover, there was little to do but prowl around El Cajon, looking for something-- anything-- out of the ordinary. At one deserted street corner, a police car’s flashing lights drew reporters like, well, flies. What was happening? they wanted to know.

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“We’re impounding a car,” an officer replied flatly, without trying to hide her disdain. “God, they’re everywhere,” another officer muttered, eyeing the reporters.

A better strategy was to follow the helicopters’ zig-zag passes, moving gradually east as they swerved north, then south, then north again. As they passed, people opened their curtains, pressing faces to windows, eager to see the aircraft delivering what so many residents had begged Gov. George Deukmejian to prevent: a potent poison that kills Mexflies by inducing paralysis.

Edwin C. Greene, the general manager of the East Valley Classic Carwash on Main Street, only had to look up. As he sat outdoors, waiting for the customers he knew would soon fill his six self-serve stalls ($1.25 with “Hot Rinse Water”), he watched the copters fly right over. With their red and green lights flashing, they resembled mechanical reindeer pulling a surreal sleigh.

“Their first pass, they came right across,” said Greene, who kept the carwash open all night Monday instead of closing at 11 p.m. “It was a beautiful picture.”

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Bob Gustafson, a retired businessman from Alpine, pulled into the Classic soon after the helicopters disappeared. “The funny thing is, we never come to El Cajon,” he said, explaining how he and his girlfriend unwittingly ate at a restaurant in the spray area. “So we come down here and (my girlfriend) said, what the heck is that? Six helicopters--what a crackup!”

He scrubbed the top of his maroon Jaguar XJ6 and shook his head. “We just came down to have something to eat and we get bombed.”

One stall over, Shelley Adams, 19, was energetically sudsing her Honda Civic. Just one month ago, she explained, she had paid about $200 for a bright red paint job. “It used to be brown,” she said--about the color of the tiny spots that dotted her windshield. She rinsed the car and looked nervously at the finish. “I’m going to soap it up again.”

At the 24-hour Ralphs Superstore on Second Street, a hush fell over the 14 aisles. Even an hour after the spraying, Ralph’s bore more resemblance to a museum than a market. “We had a big rush right before 9,” said Scott Guthrie, the service manager, who had crammed all the shopping carts inside the store to keep them malathion-free. But since then, “It’s been dead. You can hear your own voice echoing,” he said.

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The same was true in the cavernous gymnasium of El Cajon Valley High School, where a last-minute plan to shelter the city’s homeless from the spray drew only five men.

Late in the day, civic leaders had had no plan to protect the homeless from the pesticide. State and county officials had declined to open shelters because of the state’s position that there was no health hazard. And city officials had shrugged their shoulders and suggested that the homeless, many of whom congregate in an area near the western boundary of the spraying site, should walk a few blocks to get out of range.

Finally, at about 4 p.m., state officials agreed that if the high school gym could be made available during the spraying hours, state workers would supervise it. Hot pink flyers stapled to telephone poles went up just hours before the helicopters took off.

Brian Bundy Sr., a 34-year-old unemployed welder, was among the few people who showed up--and he only did so, he said, because he thought he would be allowed to stay all night. When told he had to leave the gym after the copters passed by, he was good-natured. He and a friend would go back to their usual night-time spot, he said, a partially exposed area near the fire station.

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Had he heard anything about malathion? “All I know is it kills bugs,” he said. But spraying or no spraying, he said, “They should have a place for us where we can take a shower every day and look halfway decent.”

By 10:30, the copters had returned to Gillespie Field to refuel for the trip home to the San Joaquin Valley. Dave Maier, a waiter, and Darla Utter, a college student, stood near the landing strip, holding hands in the dark. The 21-year-old sweethearts were determined to get a glimpse of history. They were disappointed.

“I wanted to see a bunch of people chaining themselves to the helicopters,” Maier said. “It doesn’t seem as important as everyone made it out to be.”


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