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FATEFUL CROSSING

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

'I'm going to die,' the migrant thought as flames bore down. Badly burned, he staggered for help. Seven didn't make it.

October 05, 2008|Marjorie Miller : Times staff writer

SAN DIEGO — 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?

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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.

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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.

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