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Blackwater Provided Potrero with Relief Suplies During Fires

The tiny town of Potrero east of San Diego first made national headlines this year when many of its residents opposed Blackwater USA's plan to build a military training camp on an old cattle ranch. A

Blackwater Provided Potrero with Relief Suplies During Fires

The tiny town of Potrero east of San Diego first made national headlines this year when many of its residents opposed Blackwater USA's plan to build a military training camp on an old cattle ranch. A week ago, Potrero transformed into ground zero for one of the larger wildfires that scorched tens of thousands of acres in the region. And Blackwater, as it turns out, was one of the first groups to transport relief supplies to the blaze-stricken community.   KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

Potrero is small. It has just under 900 residents. It's also poor. Almost half of the people there live in trailers. But neither size, nor economic status has dampened the town's pride or its independence.

Lytle: We're mountain people. We tend to be pretty well stocked up here.

That's Don Lytle whose home in Potrero survived the flames this week. His home in Potrero survived the flames. But the so-called Harris Fire destroyed at least a dozen homes in the town including his best friend's trailer.

Lytle: We really don't rely on too much outside help. But there are everyday necessities we have to have but they wouldn't let us have them up here.

And residents say those necessities like water and fuel were hard to come by during the early days of the fire that destroyed at least a dozen homes in the town. Potrero General Store owner Willina Arnold says authorities closed the two major highways leading up to the town, 45 miles southeast of San Diego.

Arnold: If you left the mountain, they didn't care who you were. There's actually a way out of here through Hauser Canyon through Lake Morena but the cops caught on and blocked that one so we got a couple of supplies here for a couple of days but that was it.

But Blackwater USA was able to get through the road closures after seeking help from Cal Fire and Assemblyman Joel Anderson. Brian Bonfiglio is vice president of Blackwater WEST. Bonfiglio has attended numerous public meetings where residents debated the merits of Blackwater's proposal to build a training camp for military and police personnel in Potrero. It's at those meetings, that Bonfiglio says he promised Potrero residents that if the company got approval to build the camp, Blackwater would be a good neighbor.

Bonfiglio: And this was just one of those times where we put our money where our mouth was an did what we said we would always do and this something we do all over the place where we have our facilities. It's not new. It's continuing if you will. 

Blackwater's plans to build what some call a mercenary training center has split the community. Opponents say the facility would disrupt the quiet of the town and would be bad for the environment. And some see Blackwater's fire assistance as an effort to win over skeptics. Resident Thall Fowler, however, says he's heartened by Blackwater's generosity. But he adds, it doesn't really matter who gives especially during a crisis.

Fowler: I don't care if Hitler came here and donated. This is a relief fund. I don't want politics in it. People brought that up. That's immaterial.

Don Lytle agrees Blackwater's motives are irrelevant. But he says he isn't fooled by the company's help.

Lytle: They're just trying to show a good face for the community but it's all a ploy. It's all a game. They're just trying to be the community's heroes."

Bonfiglio says he's not surprised that some people have interpreted the company's assistance as a PR move.

Bonfiglio: I'm going to continue doing it even through that kind of ridicule because it is the right thing to do. There are people in need. I watched the lines form. People need hygiene items. They need food. I saw two hungry dogs today show up in somebody's car and I was able to give them dog food.

Bonfiglio says after this is over, he's not looking for a thank you note. And he says he doesn't expect the company's help in the aftermath of the fire to change the minds of people who don't like Blackwater and don't want the company to build the training camp in their backyard. The county board of supervisors isn't expected to vote on the Blackwater project until late next year.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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