Fire creates opening, traps for immigrants

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

With flames encircling this remote border crossing east of San Diego, U.S. customs inspectors wasted no time evacuating. They closed the gate blocking the lanes into California, wrapped a chain around it and snapped on the lock.

The Tecate Port of Entry officially was closed.

But not for long.

Minutes later Sunday afternoon, someone cut the chain. The gate swung open. People began rushing through the unguarded crossing.

“Who knows if they had papers or not,” said Adan Nuñez Estrada, a Mexican customs inspector who works at the crossing.


The Harris wildfire burning along the U.S.-Mexico border has created opportunities and deadly traps for migrants, four of whom were found dead Thursday. The fire also has made the difficult job of patrolling the border even tougher.

Already stretched thin across the rugged mountains east of San Diego, more than 200 federal border officers have been redeployed to fire-related emergencies. Many of the remote roads they usually patrol remain soot-coated and inaccessible.

U.S. and Mexican officials say they have the scorched frontier under control -- and that the fires appear to be stopping immigrants when law enforcement cannot.

“There’s not much border patrol around,” said Luis Enrique Delgado, a Mexican immigrant safety officer from Tecate, “but many immigrants see the smoke and turn back.”

Still, catastrophe breeds chaos and some people can’t resist seizing the moment, especially when other options -- such as crossing hot deserts or swift rivers -- might seem even more perilous.

“This is their big chance. Everybody’s doing other things,” said Joseph Cisneros, who lives near rural Barrett Lake and regularly sees migrants on his property.


Since the Harris fire started, agents have arrested more than 200 migrants in the area, many after being smoked out of ravines and trails. Some may have started to cross before the blaze. But some probably decided to cross because of the opportunity it provided.

Four badly burned men climbed out of a flame-filled canyon Sunday night. Caltrans worker Don Elms, driving by on California 94, got them inside his truck, where they doused themselves with water and pressed their blistered hands against the air-conditioning vents.

“They were hurting bad,” Elms said. “They were moaning and groaning.”

All four remained in critical condition Thursday at the UC San Diego Medical Center’s burn center, along with 10 other suspected illegal border crossers rescued from the fire.

Battalion Chief Dave Nissen of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection encountered a family of six Monday morning stumbling on Deerhorn Valley Road. His Spanish vocabulary consists of one word -- andele, or hurry up -- but communication wasn’t necessary.

“I didn’t have to talk to tell them to get in the car. They knew what to do,” said Nissen, who took them to a fire station in Portrero that has housed many migrants during the fire.

In Tecate, inspectors at the small port of entry saw few options Sunday as flames roared down the surrounding hills. One man died trying to save his home and four firefighters were injured. With the roads north shrouded in smoke, the U.S. inspectors fled into Mexico, locking the gate behind them.

After someone opened the gate, the rush was on, Nuñez said. People started walking and driving back and forth unimpeded. Most, he said, appeared to be U.S. residents who had been visiting Mexico and were rushing back across the border to get their parked cars away from the flames.


Some people, however, disappeared into the hills west of town. Suspected looters may have been among them. On Wednesday, two people were arrested heading south toward Tecate, carrying a bagful of items allegedly taken from a burned-out residence on the U.S. side.

The crossing stayed unguarded for about 30 minutes, until Border Patrol agents and sheriff’s deputies made their way back through the flames and re-secured the gate, Nuñez said.

Since the incident, several agents have been monitoring the border crossing, which has remained closed except to Mexican firefighters coming to lend a hand in California.

“I don’t blame the customs guys for getting out,” said one U.S. law enforcement source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media. “They could have been killed.”

Because of the incident, customs officials will look into getting a taller gate and more substantial chains, said Vincent Bond, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.

Law enforcement officials say they don’t believe huge numbers of people came through the unguarded port. Even if they did, the fires probably blocked their way.


The flames also have made it harder to hide, they say, since hillsides that once concealed migrants under bushes have been burned bare, exposing hundreds of trails.

“The ground is actually smoldering,” said Matt Johnson, a Border Patrol spokesman. “You burn your feet just walking those trails.”

Smugglers also can’t drive the two-lane highways near the border in California to pick up their human cargo. Only law enforcement and Caltrans vehicles have been allowed on the roads.

Elms, the Caltrans worker, said that when he rescued the burned men, he knew there were others out there. They told him they had left behind a companion in the canyon.

A Border Patrol agent went to look for the man, but couldn’t get far because of the flames, Elms said, adding, “They didn’t know if he was dead or alive.”

On Thursday afternoon, agents patrolling the canyon found four dead immigrants, their bodies badly charred.


Times staff writer Ari B. Bloomekatz contributed to this report.