ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In San Diego County, what had been a massive wildfire along the U.S.-Mexico border is now about 85 percent contained. It scorched tens of thousands of acres, including a region that's an active corridor for illegal immigration. Now that the flames are gone, authorities are getting a glimpse of how some immigrants got caught up in the fire.
Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.
CARRIE KAHN: Captain Scott McLean and his crew sit around a picnic table grabbing a quick lunch on the patio outside the Barrett Junction Cafe off rural Highway 94. McLean's been down 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.
Captain SCOTT McLEAN (San Diego Fire-Rescue Department): The folks that made entry into the country were hiding in the brush. And when the fire came through, it burned them over. They had no way to escape, nowhere to go.
KAHN: The fire passed through and then people started coming out of the bushes?
Capt. McLEAN: Right. They found them wandering down the various roads behind us with bad burns.
KAHN: Firefighter Mike Muller(ph) says he was on the scene when two men were found badly burned. One of the men said he crossed illegally with his sister, and she was still out in the brush.
Mr. MIKE MULLER (Firefighter, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department): He tried to give us the best descriptive location that he could. But again, he was burnt really bad, so he was done the best he could.
KAHN: The woman hid for hours in a water tank but was burned when the flames forced her out. She flagged down a crew from the local power company.
Captain McLean says she was lucky.
Capt. McLEAN: She would've not made it through the night if she was not found.
KAHN: 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.
Mr. MATTHEW JOHNSON (Agent, U.S. Border Patrol): It's almost like a moonscape. Everything's been flattened. You can definitely see a disaster happened.
KAHN: Agent Matthew Johnson says the Border Patrol has made more than 50 rescues since the fire began October 21st, 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 the agents can clearly see all their hiking trails.
Mr. JOHNSON: Before, it was really difficult to do our enforcement activities in that area because you have the high chaparral, you have the high grass. And now, it's really exposed a lot of the area. And now, agents can see for miles.
Mr. KENNY LANE (Resident, San Diego): There is one up on that hill right there.
KAHN: Eighteen-year-old Kenny Lane(ph) points to a small trail snaking through the black ash in the hillside behind his house right off the rural highway. He says everyone knows the migrants traverse the canyons around a few homes out here. But now that he can see all the trails, he's shocked by the numbers coming right passed his house.
Mr. LANE: We never really knew where they'd go, but they were obviously coming through. Especially at night when the dogs would bark, you couldn't see anybody but you knew somebody was out there.
KAHN: Lane says they always travel fast, heading toward the highway in an awaiting car. There hasn't been any immigrant smuggling traffic down the highway since the blaze. It's still closed to everyone except firefighters and Border Patrol agents. That's been hard on the tiny Mexican town of Tecate, which is connected to San Diego by the rural highway.
Few people are passing back and forth through the metal border gate these days. When flames roared down the mountain toward the U.S. custom station, agents quickly locked the border gate and actually had to flee in to Mexico. Authorities say not long after, someone cut the lock. And for at least two hours, the gate was wide-open and unmonitored. Yesterday, things got back to normal.
Alfredo Coral(ph) is glad. He owns two stores in Tecate, Mexico, and says without legal border crossings, his business is dead.
Mr. ALFREDO CORAL (Resident, San Diego): (Speaking in foreign language)
KAHN: And he says Tecate is so lonely.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Diego.
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