Wildfires Scorch A Growing Rosarito In Baja California
California isn’t the only region dealing with devastating wildfires.
South of the border in Baja California, Mexican firefighters and local authorities have squared off against quick-moving fires that have left local residents with little time to get to safety.
In the city of Rosarito, more than 60 houses have been destroyed and at least three people have died.
“Never before in the history of Baja California have there been fires like this. Never.” So said Araceli Brown, the mayor of Rosarito.
Rosarito was once a resort beach town that has, in the past 20 years, exploded from a city of 37,120 people to a city of more than 70,000 people.
On Friday night, the mayor had raced to Colonia Morelos, a neighborhood that’s perched on a hill overlooking the city. A fast-moving wildfire swept through a nearby valley, fueled by Santa Ana winds, and took the neighborhood by surprise.
Brown said that following strong rains over the winter, there was far more vegetation in the valleys that was able to burn.
“The fire lept. At other times, the fire ran. No more,” Brown said in Spanish. “But this time the fire jumped, and it fell on the roof the houses and burned down the houses quickly.
The communities hardest hit by the fires last weekend were the ones highest up in the hills, where the residents were least eager to leave their properties. Many residents don’t have official paperwork to show that their homes belong to them. They were worried that if they left, they wouldn’t be allowed to return.
Brown needed to convince them to get out of harm’s way.
“We went to the area to evacuate the people, but the people didn’t want to leave. The fire kept advancing,” Brown said. “The fire advanced in such a way I had never seen. So fast. In a matter of seconds, it was practically over the houses. We had to take the people out of there.”
The city has already set up a station where people whose houses have burned down can register for assistance, get a medical checkup and get replacement documents like birth certificates that might have been destroyed in the fire.
Brown has only been in office for a few weeks and she is part of the new ruling Morena party in Mexico. She can already see that many people in the poor neighborhood aren’t going to leave their homes, even if there’s nothing left. So her administration is handing out large tents for people to stay in on their properties while they rebuild.
She gave a tent to a single father of three girls. While they wait to rebuild, the four have been sleeping in a tiny room that survived the fire which destroyed the rest of their home.
Across the street, Eusebia Supulveda-Vega had lived in her home with seven other family members. Their entire house burned down.
“There have been fires, but they never came here,” Supulveda-Vega said in Spanish. She had lived in the house for 17 years.
Her family only had a few minutes to escape the flames. They didn’t have time to take anything with them, so all of their possessions were destroyed.
Her family isn’t wasting any time rebuilding their home, however. Volunteers have offered food, their labor, and even an oven as they try to recreate what they’ve lost.
Supulveda-Vega said she knows that with more winds in the forecast, and extremely dry conditions, that they’re still at risk. She said they only plan to rebuild just this once.
“Only one time,” she said, her smiling face still covered in ash.
Seasonal fires have long been a part of the ecosystem in Baja California, and this isn’t the first time that the area around Morelos has burned. In fact, before the neighborhood was called Morelos, it was known as Los Quemados, or “The Burned.” The previous settlement there was destroyed by a wildfire decades ago.
It was up to Rosarito’s small fire department of under 100 firefighters, both full-time and volunteer, to put out rapidly advancing flames in Morelos, which has no running water.
“The topography is very complicated. The mountains are very steep,” said Omar Ortiz, the chief of Rosarito’s Fire Department. “It’s very difficult for the equipment to get there. It’s tough to bring the water up from below. And then it gets muddy and it’s even harder for the trucks to pass.”
Ortiz said the risk of fire has only increased as people have moved up into the mountains, trying to find cheaper places to live in the prospering city.
“Situations like this will become more common and we’re going to need more firefighters. More trucks, more hoses, more firefighters in this area,” he said.
The rebuilding of Morelos has begun. Local businesses have donated their workers and resources and students have begun clearing out toxic ash from hollowed outhouses.
As the Santa Ana winds begin to pick up again this week, Northern Baja could once again be in the path of dangerous fires.
With cities expanding their footprints further into areas that have a long history of seasonal burning, the question for these neighborhoods is not if the next fire will hit, but when ... and if they’ll be ready or able to get out of the danger in time.