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'Working as a team': Blackwater fury shelved as Potrero reacts to Harris fire

San Diego City Beat (2007-10-30) Pat Sherman

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'Working as a team'
Blackwater fury shelved as Potrero reacts to Harris fire

By Pat Sherman 10/30/2007

Jan Hedlun sat on the front porch of the Potrero General Store Saturday night, her sandaled feet propped against the banister, exhaustion in her eyes. The drone of generators stood in for a conspicuously absent symphony of crickets. Under the glare of floodlights, San Diego Gas & Electric trucks worked overtime up and down the closed mountain pass into Potrero. Pilot vehicles guided their trucks through perilous stretches of Highway 94, where the wooden beams that once supported a guardrail were a barrier of burnt matchsticks between the winding asphalt strip and certain death.

"Good luck to you all," a man called to a group of residents gathered at the store, draining his beer and tossing the can in a receptacle before driving off in his white pickup. Another woman parked her SUV near the free bales of hay and bags of protein-rich alfalfa pellets, crossing her arms over her chest and rubbing her shoulders as if trying to shake off a chill or something unbearable.

Hedlun's fingers and forearms bore slight black smudges, residue from a day of shoveling soot from inside her home. Wind gusts of up to 90 miles per hour drove the Harris fire within 30 feet of her back door. Her longtime friend and colleague, 52-year-old Thomas Varshock, became the fire's first fatality. The fire destroyed 206 homes from Potrero to Spring Valley, about 10 of them in Potrero.

Just two Sundays before the start of the Harris fire, which began near Potrero at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 21, Hedlun stood on an outdoor stage off Round Potrero Road, soundly urging more than 200 people to continue fighting Blackwater USA's plans for a paramilitary training facility in her rural community. Blackwater is currently in escrow to buy the property from a private owner, pending approval of the facility by the county Board of Supervisors.

The military contractor's guards are accused of killing 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad last month. Though the Moyock, N.C.-based company says it would not train mercenary soldiers in Potrero, some fear lucrative military contracts like those the company has received during the current war in Iraq would make that promise hard to keep. Since 2001, Blackwater has scooped up more than $1 billion from the federal government. Prior to that time, it had less than $1 million in government work.

Tired or not, after dropping by the general store to meet with a City Beat reporter, Hedlun headed to the Potrero Volunteer Fire Department, where she worked shoulder-to-shoulder with her primary foes in the Blackwater dispute, filling bags with canned food and toiletries for residents affected by the fire. Hedlun is the only member of the Potrero six-person citizen planning board who opposes the Blackwater facility, and also the only member not facing recall in a Dec. 11 election. Working with her Saturday night were planning board member Ed Boryla and board vice president Thell Fowler.

"I'm outnumbered," Hedlun confided, cheerfully placing a jar of peanut butter into a black plastic bag held by Boryla.

Asked if he agreed with Hedlun that the fire had eased tensions between opposing sides of the Blackwater issue, Fowler said, "I don't want to even talk about that. It's political.... We have all the people, pros and cons, working as a team. That should be way on the back burner.

"I've lived here 37 years," Fowler added, a far-off look in his eyes. "I've never seen the winds ever blow like this—ever."

Sam Biggers' distaste for Blackwater remained strong throughout the fires. In the middle of fighting to save the general store and an adjacent house, Biggers can be heard cursing Blackwater's name, as captured during a videotaped segment with NBC 7/39 photojournalist Robert Dingwall.

"Two of them rolled up here today in a brand new black Humvee," said Biggers, a maintenance man at the Potrero General Store who, Saturday evening, sported a "Stop Blackwater" shirt cut off at the sleeves. "They took up the whole damn parking lot and I said, ‘Come on, man, be polite. You've got four parking spaces blocked in.'"

Overhearing the conversation, retired Navy submarine officer Martin Mason offered his potential new neighbor the one-fingered salute.

"We call 'em Blackwater killers," Mason said. "We don't need 'em. We don't want 'em."

Blackwater has been vociferous in asserting that the company would be a quiet and considerate neighbor. If its behavior during the Harris fire is any indication, it's possible some might just believe it.

Though many supplies at the fire department came from the Red Cross and local Kiwanis and Elks Club chapters, Blackwater vice president Brian Bonfiglio delivered hot meals and supplies throughout the week.

"It's almost like I hate to admit it, but they brought in the first fuel we got for our generators," Hedlun said of the company. "It's wonderful that they've donated their stuff and their time and their money, and it's good that they did what they did, but that doesn't mean that people are still going to want the facility here.

"I think a couple people are going to change their opinion about Blackwater," she said, "but I don't think they're going to change their opinion about the facility."

Reached via phone Sunday morning, Bonfiglio said he made his first delivery Wednesday evening. Republican state Assemblymember Joel Anderson, who represents Potrero, put him in touch with former San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwynn, who referred Bonfiglio to the Rock Church in Point Loma. "[Gwynn] indicated that the Rock Church was getting supplies that could not be taken into Qualcomm anymore," said Bonfiglio, who also purchased shovels and picks at Home Depot.

Brenda Wise, president of the Potrero volunteer fire board and the only planning board candidate who supports Blackwater, lost a shed filled with her wedding albums and other irreplaceable mementoes in the fire.

Though Wise said in an earlier interview with City Beat that she heard the Blackwater facility would include a fire truck and possibly its own station, Bonfiglio said Sunday that it would include only one water storage vehicle with off-road capability, which Bonfiglio believes would have helped keep the Harris fire at bay. The 824-acre valley where the Blackwater base would be built could serve as an evacuation site for residents, Bonfiglio said. The only flames on the property during the Harris fire were at the western edge of the valley, where fire crews back-burned an area to keep the fire from advancing. A herd of cattle grazing on the property keep the dry grass down.

Boryla said he thinks Blackwater's advanced communications systems would come in handy when phone and Internet communications are down.

"We've always said that this would be the perfect place for backcountry fires," Bonfiglio said. "I will have a fire apparatus, I will have classrooms, briefing rooms and mess halls.... I wish the business was up and running there so we could have done more during the Harris fire."

Hedlun and others note that the facility will also store artillery and fuel.

"The few people I've spoken to said there would have been no way in hell that they would have gone into that valley with the fires raging, fire station or not," she said.

Structures at the facility would "exceed fire requirements for that use," Bonfiglio said.

"The building is hardened, it's flame resistant, if you will, and there are state-of-the-art fire-suppression systems in the building," he said. "There are no trees, there's no grass, no shrubs. It would be like lighting a match and putting it on the cement." When Blackwater sends its trainees home, they would leave with their ammunition, Bonfiglio assured. "Backcountry fires happen," he said. "We send our students home, but remember, the students come in with their ammunition; they leave with it. It gets out long before the fire even reaches that area."

Though the gates were open and several California Department of Forestry trucks visible on the Blackwater property Saturday, residents and reporters dropping by to see firsthand how the site weathered the Harris fire were unwelcome.

Raymond Lutz, of the watchdog group Citizens' Oversight Projects, took New York Times reporter Solomon Moore to tour the property Saturday. Lutz said that within 10 minutes of posting about their visit on his group's website, he was contacted by Carol Snyder, a real estate broker for Team One Realty, who threatened to sue him.

"That's how closely they monitor me," Lutz said. "Her blood was boiling." Synder said Lutz was witnessed on the property, though would not say who saw him there.

"He will hear from our attorney, as well as some other reporters that were out there," Snyder said. "He knows where the boundaries are, and there's lots of no trespassing signs.... The owner is furious."

Snyder said the property owner's Dulzura home was destroyed in the fire and that he would likely be moving back to the site, in a building currently occupied by the caretaker.

Lutz noted that the recall election would be conducted via mail, though he was uncertain whether the county registrar of voters would provide a locked ballot box on Dec. 11 for those residents who missed the deadline or distrust voting by mail. There are 509 registered voters in Potrero, and the deadline to mail in ballots is set for Nov. 13.

San Diego County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler said the recall election would likely be conducted through a mail-in ballot only.

"Frankly, because it's such a small area, it didn't even make sense for us to program it into our system," Seiler said. "We're just going to hand-count those here.... We have been in pretty close communication with the post office because of some of the damage out there. If they have lost a residence, the post office has made arrangements for them to pick up their ballots at various postal locations."

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Title 'Working as a team': Blackwater fury shelved as Potrero reacts to Harris fire
Publisher San Diego City Beat
Author Pat Sherman
Pub Date 2007-10-30
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Keywords Blackwater, Election2008, Harris Ranch Fire
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Topic revision: r4 - 26 Apr 2008, RaymondLutz
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