People burn here

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Fires in California hit the headlines with stories of Arnold Schwarzenegger giving hope to his super-rich friends. But the real victims weren't those who lost a wing of their mansion, writes Mike Davis.

The most heartbreaking sign in California can be found at Doghouse Junction, near the craggy summit of fire-scarred Otay Mountain, overlooking the gorge of the Tijuana River. It is a simple, chilling image of a woman desperately fleeing flames. Anyone likely to encounter the sign - that is to say, mostly border patrol agents and their furtive prey - will instantly understand its meaning: People burn here.

Otay Mountain and its sister, border-straddling massif to the east, Tecate Peak, offer refuge to various endemic species of rare trees, birds and butterflies, but the militarisation of the border, along with the recent wildfires, has so defaced the landscape that it is difficult to recognise the underlying natural beauty.

The sweeping views of San Diego-Tijuana and their utterly entangled destinies remain superb, but otherwise Doghouse Junction looks like a Nato firebase in Central Asia: a crude helicopter landing pad, a bunker, occasional National Guard Humvees, and ever-lurking green and white migra [border patrol] SUVs. The real Afghanistan, by the way, is only 25 miles further east at La Posta: a mountain warfare training facility where Navy Seals matriculate before deployment.

The Otay-Tecate wilderness is Tijuana's backdoor to San Diego, now that the front door at San Ysidro has been bolted shut by the Clinton administration's Operation Gatekeeper and the Bush administration's superlative re-erection of the Berlin Wall. Looking at a road map from the perspective of labour migrants, San Diego County's border mountains seem an obvious alternative to facing death by thirst in the deserts of Imperial County or southern 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. Except when one of their helicopters crash, la migra aren't crazy enough to descend into the treacherous maze of inaccessible canyons and deep 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 [luring prey with torches]. 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 now permanently stalk the border.

Scores of immigrants (or more) have died in recent years: some from falls, some by dehydration and sheer exhaustion, some in snow storms in the higher mountains to the east, and others casually murdered for the ease and profit of their guides. But the most excruciating death is the wildfire that can suddenly overtake its victims in a few minutes or stalk their desperate, running figures for hours before they stumble, writhing in the infernal brush.

Fire siege

The border mountains are highly combustible, and four years ago a devastating firestorm - part of the Southern California "Fire Siege of 2003" - scourged Otay Mountain and its rare cypress forest (an ice age remnant), but spared most of the rugged terrain around the Tecate border crossing to the east. On 21 October, exactly as predicted by some meteorologists, gale-force Santa Ana winds produced an eerie reprise of the 2003 conflagration: satellite cameras captured the stunning image of 15 giant smoke plumes blown far out into the Pacific.

From space all of Southern California from Point Dume south seemed to be sending smoke-signals to the moon; yet from most newsrooms and editorial desks only the celebrity evacuations in Malibu, and later the mass exodus of the population from the affluent, heavily Republican suburbs of northern San Diego County were deemed worthy of bold black headlines. The Harris Fire, centred on the Tecate-Potrero area, in a largely blue collar back country that has been 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 (and most gruesome) human tragedy of the fire week took place in the early hours of the Harris Fire, on the flanks of Tecate Peak. On the south east side the rapidly moving fire killed a Potrero resident defending his home and seriously burned his teenage son and four firefighters. It also roared with almost no warning into the US hamlet of Tecate, forcing immigration officials at the border gate to flee for their lives.

Meanwhile on the mountain's steep northern slopes a party of immigrants were caught in a hellish hail of wind-blown firebrands that set the brush around them afire.

Despite severe burns, a dozen of them managed to reach the nearest highway and were rescued by emergency workers; the charred remains of three men and one woman were found by border patrol agents a few days later. The following week a volunteer search group, Angeles del Desierto, found the body of a fifth victim - his shoes melted to his feet - in a cave near the summit.

While some migrants were perishing in the funeral pyre of Tecate Peak, others were chancing the opportunity afforded by the brief abandonment of the nearby border gate. Some 300 border patrol agents and National Guard troops were quickly dispatched to restore "homeland security". According to the Los Angeles Times, "more than 200 migrants in the area" (some "smoked out of ravines") were arrested by the reinforcements.

At the same time immigration agents were conspicuous at fire-zone roadblocks throughout northern San Diego County. Allied with the threat of the giant Witch Creek Fire as it moved from the backcountry westward to the coast, the migra presence seems to have at least temporarily scoured the canyons east of I-5 in the Encinitas-Carlsbad area of their long-established populations of gardeners and flower-plantation workers, achieving the kind of local ethnic cleansing that nativists and local homeowners have long agitated for.

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 yet been reported, and then gave gasoline to internet arsonists (already busy spreading bogus tales of Mexicans with Molotov cocktails) with a totally inaccurate story about Mexicans "looting" refugee supplies from Qualcomm Stadium. According to La Opinion, the infinitely more responsible Spanish-language daily in Los Angeles, the actual incident was a misunderstanding - over diapers, no less - although it led to several deportations by conveniently available immigration agents.

The Union-Tribune, the flagship of the Copley newspaper chain, is the oldest urban news monopoly in the US and has approximately the same relationship to the conservative wing of the Republican Party that L'Osservatore Romano has to the Vatican.

Its most shameful coverage of the "colour" of the fire came on Halloween, in an article bannered "11 in 18 in burn unit undocumented: UCSD cases put focuses on who pays for care". The article - the first separate piece that the paper had devoted to the Harris Fire tragedy - gave a pulpit to anti-immigrant propagandists to complain about the costs of providing emergency care to non-citizens.

Indeed, the right wing blogosphere was soon clogged with reprints of the Union-Tribune story as well as the demand that the Mexican government evacuate the fire victims and reimburse the long suffering taxpayers of San Diego for the cost of their treatment. While another of the Harris Fire burn victims, a mother of three, was dying in the hospital, a popular Minuteman-type website screamed: "Crispy Illegals Costing Us a Fortune".

What was exposed by this hysteria, of course, is the real meaning of the stolid middle class values that Union-Tribune and local politicians have been celebrating since the fires began - the bigotry, selfishness, and manipulated rage that glue together Republican ideology from Rancho Santa Fe to the White House. The pain of the 1,100 or so families who lost homes (but, with two exceptions, not lives) in the largely affluent suburbs affected by the Witch Creek Fire should not be used as an excuse to 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 the sinister little sign on Otay Mountain.


This is an updated version of an article published by The Nation magazine.