A new land, a roaring fire, and then nowhere to run

Moises Ramirez crossed into California the morning of Oct. 21, 2007, with a plan. He would get a restaurant job and, with the money he earned, build a house on land his father had given him in El Grullo, Jalisco. A year or two of hard work and he could go home to Mexico and the woman he loved.

On his way up Tecate Peak with six other migrants, Ramirez had stopped to pray at a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. But soon after they climbed over the border fence that Sunday, a Santa Ana blew in from the east, and they saw an orange glow rise up from the horizon. Flames raced toward them on 80-mph winds and the “coyote” they’d hired to guide them into the United States took off, leaving them to face a blaze that was chewing up chaparral like a wild beast.

Ramirez knew he couldn’t outrun his fate, and his cries to the virgencita were failing to keep the wind-whipped Harris Ranch fire at bay. As he huddled behind a boulder with the others, flames as tall as trees engulfed them. The ground crackled around them, and then they were beating out fire on each other’s backs with their bare hands. “I’m burning, put me out,” one after another screamed. “I’m going to die,” the 34-year-old Ramirez thought. “There’s no salvation.”

The blaze passed as quickly as it had arrived, leaving behind a windstorm of embers. Ramirez was blinded by smoke and ash, and the skin peeled off his hands and body like burnt newspaper curling in a fireplace.

Ramirez thought of his dream house and the woman he had wooed away from her husband and children to share it with him. His father had warned that he would pay for his sin of breaking up a family. Was this the retribution?



Well-traveled routes

Migrants have long made the journey to California on trails littered with lonely graves. Generations of frontier settlers, Gold Rush prospectors, Dust Bowl refugees and illegal immigrants from Latin America have found themselves at the mercy of nature crossing California’s wide deserts and steep mountains.

More recently, millions of migrants from Latin America have made the illegal and dangerous trek across the U.S.-Mexico border, creating a vast supply of cheap labor and polarizing public opinion.

But newcomers and fire may never have crossed paths quite as they did last fall, when high winds and dry chaparral fed an arc of wildfires from Malibu to the Mexican border, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands to evacuate. The worst was the Harris fire, which burned for 20 days, consumed 90,000 acres and left eight people dead. Largely unnoticed in the upheaval was that seven of the dead were undocumented migrants who were making the clandestine trek to the U.S. across well-worn border trails. Sixteen illegal immigrants caught in the flames were treated at UC San Diego’s Regional Burn Center.

The blaze was first reported to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s station at Potrero, near the border, at 9:21 a.m.

As the fire burned quickly, the U.S. Border Patrol positioned agents in the open so immigrants could find help if they needed it. The first group of five surrendered shortly after the fire ignited, and they were held until it could be determined they had not started the blaze, according to Border Patrol spokesman Mark Endicott.

Other groups made their escape to the highways, where they were detained by authorities. “Radio traffic was heavy. It seemed like every 30 minutes or so they were finding a group of six, a group of eight,” said state firefighter Heath Finton. Many others learned of the fire too late, however. “There was no way to warn them,” said state fire department Capt. Kari Thompson.


A pattern of migration

In an arroyo near the border, Areli Peralta Rivera was heading north with five other migrants, guided by a coyote. The 25-year-old beautician from Mexico had recently lost a baby girl to birth defects and wanted a new start. She and her husband now hoped to make a better life in the United States.

Peralta’s village of Mazatlan, in the southern state of Guerrero, had long sent its sons and daughters to work in el norte. Her father, Concepcion Peralta, had spent about a dozen years in California, most of them, he said, working for la compania Edison. He traveled home for Christmas each year to visit his wife and four children, sneaking back across the border to his job after New Year’s.

In 1985, he had a chance to apply to become a legal U.S. resident. He began the process, but his heart wasn’t in it and he never finished. “I didn’t want to live there with my family,” he said. He had saved enough money to build a modest home and buy furniture, so he moved back to Mexico.

When they grew up, Peralta’s eldest sons made their way north and settled in Orange County, where they worked in construction. They liked living in California, and new fences and surveillance along the border made it difficult to go back and forth as their father had done. Their wives and children lived there with them.

Areli and her husband, Ruben Santos, were set to join them on the day of the Harris fire. Areli had broken the news to her father over a meal shortly before her departure.

She said, “Papa, yo me voy” (I’m leaving), recalled Concepcion Peralta. “I said, ‘I don’t know, my daughter. If you want to go, maybe you can follow your dreams.’ ”

He told Areli to be good, rather than to be careful. He knew the drill and wasn’t worried about safety so much as he was about the fact that his daughter was a young woman going far from home.

She left Mazatlan the day before the fire started, along with her husband and two others. The next morning, they crossed the border near Tecate, headed for Anaheim.


Returning from funeral

Traveling another route with another group of migrants, Nicolas Beltran and his sister Maria Guadalupe were returning to northern San Diego County after attending their father’s funeral in Cruz del Norte, Mexico. Both had been working in the United States, he in a plant nursery and she selling tamales at a strip mall. Both had children born in the United States who were American citizens. They were eager to get back.

Nicolas, 24, had come the first time as a teenager, his head full of stories about life in the United States from those who had gone before him. “You want to see it for yourself,” Nicolas said. He figured he’d come for a year or two, then go home again. But this was his third trip north in eight years.

Guadalupe, 29, lived in Vista with her partner, Felipe Mercado, and their four children, ages 17 months to 8 years. She had taken the two youngest with her to Mexico and on the way back handed them to a family member in Tijuana. As American citizens, they could cross legally into the United States while she set out by foot to cross through the brush near Tecate.

By the time the Beltrans crossed the border Sunday afternoon, the Harris fire had already passed through the area, stripping away the dense vegetation Nicolas had seen on previous trips. This time they hiked into the night across a bed of black ash and smoldering tufts of brush. They slept by rocks and, in the morning, made their way north of Highway 94 to a pool of muddy water.

One more rest, Nicolas thought, and then they would finish the trek at the place where their guide had arranged for a car to pick them up. But when he stood up again, he felt a blast of hot air and realized the ravenous fire had circled back on them.

The coyote wanted to run, but Nicolas said no, it was too late. The blaze was only a couple of hundred yards away and here, at least, they were near a bit of water. They threw off their backpacks and lay down to wait. “We didn’t talk. We concentrated on what was coming,” Nicolas said.

Burned and desperate

Elsewhere in the smoke-shrouded borderlands, Moises Ramirez and his group examined their injuries and tried to gather strength to move on. They slowly pulled themselves up and began searching for their coyote, whom they found up the hill with melted shoes and badly burned feet. One charred leg looked broken. They asked him which way to go for help and he pointed straight, through a cloud of black smoke, but he couldn’t move.

It looked to Ramirez as if the coyote had fled from the group straight into the arms of fate. “He was running fast, like he had to be right there at that moment,” Ramirez said.

The six men still standing took the coyote’s cellphone and headed off to find a signal. Eyes burning, hands swelling to uselessness, they slid and stumbled down the slope. Trying to ignore his pain, Ramirez crossed boulder fields and went past smoldering bushes. At last they reached a point with cell reception and could call 911.

“Senora, we are where it’s burning; we are very burned, please,” one of them, a man named Cesar, yelled into the phone in Spanish.

“We can’t take the pain of the burns anymore, senora. Forgive me,” he told an emergency operator in a taped call, a copy of which was obtained by UC San Diego videographer Laura Castaneda.

“Forgive me, senor, but if we don’t know where you are, it’s very difficult,” the operator said in Spanish.

The problem was, the migrants had no idea where they were. There was smoke as far as the eye could see and no visible landmarks. Cesar pleaded for help.

“I know you’re burned; I already told them,” the operator said.

“Senorita, we can’t do anything for our friends. They’re going to die.”

“I understand. Everyone in the world is working to help you, but it’s very difficult to find you in the mountains and canyons, OK?”

Helicopters circled overhead and the group called to them, waving their burned arms. The pilots flew past, unseeing. Ramirez and the others decided they had to press on. An older man named Jose Israel said he couldn’t go any farther and lay down. “Don’t leave me,” the man pleaded. But by then it was every man for himself.

Soon after, Ramirez gave up. He crawled beneath a rocky overhang and drifted off to the smell of his own burnt flesh and the echo of the old man’s cries: “Help me.”

A family’s fears

In Anaheim, Areli Peralta’s brothers were growing worried. Television news was reporting a big fire along the U.S.-Mexico border and it looked bad -- huge, forked-tongue flames for miles. They knew that their sister and her husband were headed north through Tecate. Why hadn’t they called?

They spoke to their father, Concepcion Peralta, in Mexico; to Ruben’s father; to the father of one of their friends. No one had heard from the pair. “We were desperate. We couldn’t believe it. How was this possible?” said Peralta’s brother Juan Miguel.

They called the Mexican Consulate in San Diego to report the couple missing and wanted to go search for her, but the Peralta brothers were in the United States illegally and couldn’t risk going near the border. A sister-in-law who resides legally in the United States went instead. She checked with the hospital, the Border Patrol, the consulate, the morgue. Nothing.

Helping the injured

California Department of Transportation worker Don Elms lives in Potrero on land near the border that his father bought decades ago. He is accustomed to the sounds of migrants making their way through the night. Sometimes they stop to ask for water. Sometimes they make trouble. Sometimes he sees them shoot across the road like deer. The Border Patrol made 9,801 apprehensions of illegal immigrants last October in the San Diego sector -- a territory stretching from the Pacific Ocean east to Imperial County and north to San Clemente.

When the Harris fire started, Elms got the call to help close the roads. “It was the hardest wind I’ve ever seen in a fire,” he said. Wearing his emergency vest, he cruised Highway 94 in a state-issued orange pickup. The land was black and empty, eerily silent. Around the bend at mile 37, a group of five or six burned immigrants appeared in the middle of the road like ghosts.

“They were shocked, in pain and just wanting help. I told ‘em to get in. One of them said there were otros mas and pointed up the hill,” Elms said. “I asked if they were muerto, and they said they didn’t know.” Elms saw their blistering skin and turned on the air conditioning so they could cool their hands in front of the vents as he drove to the Potrero fire station.

Elms’ day ended with another evacuation -- of his own home.

‘I couldn’t see’

Nicolas Beltran lay face down in the pool of water his group had stumbled upon and held his breath as the flames latched onto him. The coyote had taken the deeper end and used his hat to douse himself with water. Nicolas’ sister Guadalupe was nearby, and he was on the shallow side. He screamed as the fire chewed his ears and scorched his head, back and legs. Although he had covered his face, the heat seared off his eyelashes and, when it was over, ash as rough as sand scratched at his eyes.

“I couldn’t see,” he said. His sister told him he was badly burned. “I was more burned than she was, but she couldn’t walk.”

Guadalupe pleaded with her brother not to leave, but he told her no one would find them there and they had to get help. The road, it turned out, was not far away. He followed lights to a red emergency vehicle. A rescue team was sent in for Guadalupe, and an ambulance was called. With drugs, Nicolas’ pain began to dim, and so did his awareness.

Path to salvation

Back in the hillside shelter, Moises Ramirez awakened. He couldn’t tell how long he had been there. It was dark. His skin was charred, his lips parched. He thought he had given up for good, but now something inside said, “Stand up!” He steadied himself on shaky legs, urinated into his swollen hand and sipped the moisture.

Ramirez didn’t know which way to go. Illegal immigrants had cut myriad paths through the chaparral, and he chose the one with the most burned water bottles and empty bean cans, following a trail of trash to salvation. Soon, he heard radio static and cried out, “Here I am.” No one answered, and he feared the vehicles would leave. “I was almost running, going across the scorched side of the hill,” Ramirez said. “I fell four or five times.”

At last he saw the red and white emergency lights. When he reached them, gasping for air, he found what looked like police cars, ambulances and a white truck, perhaps belonging to the Border Patrol. They all seemed to be waiting for him. Burned and shivering, he was nonetheless lucid. Rescue workers gave him a blanket and oxygen, and wrapped his fingers in sterile gauze. An agent in a tan uniform took his photograph and copied his Mexican driver’s license, but Ramirez was beyond caring.

“He was worn out,” said Joel Ver Velde, a paramedic who treated him at the scene and took him to the hospital. “He went loose. He knew he was getting help, and he did what he was told. He was happy to be alive.”

Charred beyond recognition

The fire had calmed by nightfall Thursday, when Rafael Hernandez, a volunteer with the Angeles del Desierto search and rescue group, came upon a couple of dozen firefighters and Border Patrol agents trying to retrieve four charred bodies from a ravine beneath Highway 94, near Barrett Junction.

A native of Mexico and legal resident of the United States, Hernandez spends most of his free time combing the border canyons and desert for immigrants in trouble. He and his colleagues leave bottles of water and warm clothes in the desert for lost migrants -- measures that critics say aid illegal immigration but that the Angels insist save lives. They also recover bodies.

Hernandez pulled up to help. Floodlights mounted on a truck shone on the valley of ash. A medical examiner had been down to look at the bodies, and now the rescue team was using ropes to lift them out.

“They were burned beyond recognition. You couldn’t even tell if they were men or women,” Hernandez said.

Authorities suspected they had found Areli Peralta, her husband and friends. To make a certain identification, the coroner needed DNA from family members, but Peralta’s undocumented brothers were in no position to approach authorities. Instead, the Mexican Consulate arranged for their father to come north for three days to give a blood sample. Afterward, Hernandez took him to the spot where the bodies had been found. Although it would be weeks before a positive ID was made, Concepcion had accepted that Areli was dead.

“My daughter, I never thought this would happen to you,” he wailed by the side of the road. As he hammered white crosses into the ground to honor the dead, he cried in agony. “Daughter, how I loved you.”

The bodies of Areli and her husband were sent home two months later in closed coffins, accompanied to the graveyard by the mournful whine of brass bands. “I never thought my children would want to live up there,” Peralta said. “If I’d known what would happen, I would have gotten my papers.”