December 7, 2007

Latino Hero of Cedar Fire Running for Supervisor

By E.A. Barrera

Sitting at a Starbucks in Mission Hills with his father and attorney, Rudy Reyes shows a determination to turn a tragedy into a triumph. Now 30-years old, the 1995 graduate of El Capitan High School in Lakeside was severely burned during the 2003 Cedar Fire. He and his family — who live on Wildcat Canyon Road near the Barona Indian Reservation managed to escape the fires alive. But Rudy sought to make sure his mother and the others made it out first. By the time he was ready to leave and tried to start his car, the smoke and heat of the fires was too much and the engine would not turn over.

Rudy tried to make a dash through the blaze on foot. An athlete all his life who had trained in Kung Fu, he was a strong runner. He jumped into the shower, dousing himself and his clothing with water and made the run for his life. While he escaped alive, the heat and flames were too much and almost 70 percent of his body was burned. He lost his left ear, one finger on his left hand, was temporarily blind and his skin was badly scarred. He has gone through 28 corrective surgeries to repair the damage, regaining his eye sight through a new lasik surgery procedure donated by ophthalmologist Richard Leung and the doctors of Scripps Memorial Hospital’s Mericos Eye Institute.

So when the recent Witch Creek fire struck almost four years to the week of the Cedar Fire, causing residents along Wildcat Canyon Road, Lakeside and Ramona to evacuate their homes, Reyes was infuriated by the similar problems he saw with stopping the Cedar Fire. He said the County was ill-prepared for the fires and had done little to improve conditions in the four years since he was injured.

“Other than the reverse 9-11 calls, which were a good thing, there was no preparation and leadership from the County Board of Supervisors on creating better defenses for the people of San Diego against major fires like the last two,” said Reyes.

Reyes has decided to challenge incumbent Supervisor Diane Jacob in next year’s election because of the two fires. His criticism of the Supervisors — and Jacob in particular — revolve around what he sees as delaying tactics in the development of a County-wide Fire Department; the Supervisor’s refusal to implement 1996’s Proposition 215, which gave burn victims and others suffering from chronic pain the right in California to use medically prescribed marijuana for pain relief; and the simple fact that Jacob has served on the board for 16 years.

“She has done some good things and this is not personal. I like her personally. But she has been on that board since 1992. All five of the Supervisors have sat together on the Board for more than a decade. They have grown unresponsive to new ideas and the needs of the people. The County needs some fresh blood,” said Reyes.

Reyes insists the Board of Supervisors are responsible for much of what he sees as the lack of preparation for the last wildfire storm. He says Supervisors balked at such measures as controlled burns and using inmates from local jails to eliminate excessive weeds and brush which fueled the fires. He says other measures, such as gathering more water through the use of technology and not stopping sprawl development in areas known to be vulnerable to wildfires have been further failings of the Supervisors.

“They have not been proactive, but they sure have done what they could to protect their own homes and their own re-election,” said Reyes. “They blatantly ignored the need to spend more money for fire protection. We should have had more helicopters ready. We should have had more fire fighting personnel. No emergency access roads in the back-country have been built to evacuate people during a fire. People trying to get out of Ramona last time were stuck in traffic for hours because there was only one way in and out of the San Diego Country Estates.”

Reyes charged that during both fires, Jacob “had fire trucks parked on her property” in Jamul. He blasted Jacob and the other Supervisors for having what he call “a slush fund” of grant money and other funds he said they dole out to community groups and special interests “to make sure nobody challenges them at election time.”

“I am a life long resident of this County. When I was hurt, the people of this county were good to me and now I want to return the favor. I want to serve their interests and not the special interests and I want to make sure that when the next fires strike, we will be ready. I want to help make sure that when voters pass a law that says a doctor can prescribe medication for pain, the Supervisors won’t waste time and money that could be used preparing us for future wildfires, trying to ban pain medication in this county. They have all been there long enough and it is time for a change,” said Reyes.

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