Border Agents See Signs of Migrants Caught in Fires

Wildfires scorched vegetation from the hillsides, exposing trails used by illegal immigrants. i i

Wildfires have scorched the vegetation scorched from the hillsides, exposing some of the hiking trails used by illegal immigrants in San Diego County near the Mexico border. Carrie Kahn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Carrie Kahn, NPR
Wildfires scorched vegetation from the hillsides, exposing trails used by illegal immigrants.

Wildfires have scorched the vegetation scorched from the hillsides, exposing some of the hiking trails used by illegal immigrants in San Diego County near the Mexico border.

Carrie Kahn, NPR

What had been a massive wildfire along the U.S.-Mexico border is about 85 percent contained. It scorched tens of thousands of acres, including a region that's an active corridor for illegal immigration.

The flames even forced authorities to flee their post at the border; the lock they put on the gate was cut, leaving the crossing unattended for about two hours.

Now that the flames are gone and border agents are returning to their rotations, they're getting a glimpse of how some immigrants got caught in the fires.

Capt. Scott McLean and his crew were on the border for more than a week. He says the first days were the roughest. That's when firefighters began getting calls that illegal immigrants were being found burned by the blaze.

Those who had entered the U.S. were hiding in the brush, and when the fire came through, they had no way to escape and nowhere to go, McLean says. The fire passed through, and then people started coming out of the bushes. They were found wandering down the various roads with bad burns.

Eleven immigrants are now being treated in the burn unit of a local hospital. According to the Border Patrol, as many as seven died in the fire.

Agent Matthew Johnson says the Border Patrol has made more than 50 rescues since the fire began Oct. 21 and more than 200 arrests. He says it's going to be a lot harder for illegal immigrants to come through the rural canyons of east San Diego now that agents can clearly see all of their hiking trails.

Local residents expressed surprise at the number of trails they can now see snaking so close to their property.

"We never knew where they would go, but they were obviously coming through," 18-year-old Kenny Lane says. "Especially at night, when the dogs would bark and you couldn't see anybody, but you knew somebody was out there."

Meantime, the highway remains closed to everyone except firefighters, which has hampered legal border crossings as well. The lack of commerce has been hard on the tiny Mexican town of Tecate, which is connected to San Diego by the rural highway. Businesses owners expressed relief Tuesday as normalcy seemed to be returning.

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