Law Enforcement and Troops Team Up Along Border Part III

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(Originally published on July 3, 2007, in the Silver City Daily Press. This is the third and final article in a series on border issues and immigration. Part I and Part II.)

Since the U.S. Senate last week decided to forgo comprehensive immigration reform, the situation along the border will likely remain unchanged. One change that has occurred, however, is the commander of National Guard units monitoring activity along the New Mexico portion of that border.

On Thursday, several hours after the Senate voted against cloture on the immigration reform package, Col. Barry F. Stout assumed command of Joint Task Force Zia. About 600 National Guard troops are participating in Operation Jump Start under Stout’s command. They include Air National Guard personnel from Albuquerque, and Army National Guard troops from Arkansas, Georgia, New Mexico, Puerto Rico and West Virginia.

President George W. Bush in 2006 ordered the National Guard to help secure the border. Troops have since supported U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New Mexico in four areas of operation: Deming, Las Cruces, Lordsburg and Santa Teresa.

Unlike the Border Patrol agents that patrol the area north of the international boundary, National Guard troops do not operate alone. Most troops are placed in Entry and Identification teams, while others man fixed lookout sites such as Falcon Eye and Eagle Eye.

Tech Sgt. Ronnie Drake of the New Mexico Air National Guard has been stationed at the Falcon Eye observation site since October. Units at the sites — east of Columbus and several miles north of the border — rely on their eyes and high-tech equipment to complete their mission.
“What we have here is an Area Reconnaissance Surveillance System,” Drake said.

Most EIT personnel use one camera mounted in “skyboxes” to scan the area for illegal activity. The two fixed sites are equipped with a long-distance imaging camera that has daylight and heat differential abilities. In addition, Drake said, a Doppler radar system scans the area south of the site for movement.

“It’s just like the one the weather service uses,” Drake said.

Most National Guard units are stationary, identifying border crossers on foot and in vehicles, and directing Border Patrol units toward any incursions. Staff Sgt. Ryan Reynolds, also of the New Mexico ANG, said soldiers use the SALUTE acronym to report suspicious activity.

“We report on the size, activity, location, whether they’re wearing any uniforms, the time, and any equipment,” Reynolds said, “say, if they’re wearing backpacks or carrying rifles.”

According to Drake, this information is tracked, and helps agents and soldiers capture repeat offenders.

“People like to do things the same way,” Drake said.

Using the Global Positioning System, agents can track where they’ve apprehended smugglers and border crossers.

“If we’ve seen the same guy use a particular trail on Tuesdays,” he said, “we can have some agents waiting for him at the end of the trail next Tuesday.”

While that type of knowledge is useful, the main focus for the National Guard units is on spotting border crossers.

Drake said the standard equipment can be supplemented by mobile cameras that are operated remotely.

Falcon Eye is several miles from Eagle Eye, and soldiers are therefore able to support one another if border crossers are on the move between the sites.

“If they spot some movement over at Eagle Eye, but they can’t zero in on it,” Drake said, “we have some overlap here and can train our camera over there.”

The heat differential and radar systems are especially useful at night. Carlos Peña, who will complete a two-month rotation at the Falcon Eye site at the end of July, said most activity occurs after dusk. Peña, a specialist with the Puerto Rico National Guard, received training on-site from the Air National Guard.

Drake said the fast rotation means soldiers are trained to use fixed objects as reference points when directing agents into the area. An old Air Force beacon outside Columbus is one such point, as well as abandoned cars and a horse corral. According to Drake, a big hurdle is training soldiers how to communicate with agents after dark.

“They’ll say ‘head toward the mountains’ or ‘head east,'” Drake said. “For the agents, it’s pitch dark out there — there aren’t any mountains and there isn’t any east.”

The Doppler radar system is helpful. The system will register movement in three phases: a yellow dot means the radar “thinks” it spotted something, while a red dot indicates a more solid hit. A black dot is a pretty sure thing.

“The radar will try to identify what the object is,” Drake said. “It will also give us the distance, azimuth and speed.”

Targets moving from 1-3 miles per hour are possibly humans. Any faster is an animal, while targets going more than 10 miles per hour are probably vehicles. The system is sensitive enough to detect a bush moving in the wind.

In addition to the technology available and the role the National Guard plays in spotting border crossers, the troops’ presence is enough to dissuade would be crossers.

“When I first got here in October, a big group was about 25 people,” Drake said. “Now, it’s unusual to see eight people in a group.”

Lt. Dwayne Lee, public affairs officer for Operation Jump Start, said the National Guard presence also results in an unknown deterrent.

“We don’t know how many people have turned back after seeing the soldiers here,” Lee said.

For that reason, most of the National Guard positions are not camouflaged. Drake said that sometimes leads to additional captures, as border crossers who try to avoid the sites walk into the waiting arms of Border Patrol agents.

Still, motivated smugglers and border crossers have adapted their tactics.

“We’ll see them on the cameras looking at us,” Drake said, “and we can see they’re on the phone with somebody.

“They’re watching us watching them.”

Law Enforcement and Troops Team Up Along Border Part II

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(Originally published on July 2, 2007, in the Silver City Daily Press. This is the second in a series of articles on border issues and immigration. Part I and Part III.)

With the U.S. Senate’s vote last week against cloture on a comprehensive immigration reform package, options for addressing the issue will now likely face individual hurdles within Congress. Meanwhile, a fragile status quo remains along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Members of New Mexico’s Senate delegation voted against S. 1639. Pete Domenici, who helped draft the compromise legislation, concluded Thursday the bill was “neither workable nor realistic.”

“We must address our border and immigration crisis,” Domenici said last week. “I know first-hand the need to secure our borders because every day my constituents tell me about the problems they face because of illegal immigrants breaching the Southwest border.
“We have a crisis on our borders that must be resolved.”

Domenici highlighted the link between providing $4.4 billion in mandatory border security funding to passage of a full bill; the limitations and restrictions on the temporary worker program and the impact on New Mexico small businesses; and the probability that the House of Representatives will not consider the issue as reasons for his decision to withdraw support for the package.

In addition, Domenici said that a section referring to the Z or “laser” visa program could have unintended consequences for New Mexico.

“As I understand it, New Mexico state law would allow all Z visa holders under this bill to qualify for Medicaid,” Domenici said. “That matter needs to be reviewed and its impacts fully considered so that the Congress can avoid unintended effects of this bill.”

Mexican nationals are eligible for a laser visa once they complete a lengthy application process. Visa holders may then travel within 25 miles of the border to visit family or to shop at Americans businesses. The visas allow travel for up to 30 days.

Domenici and Sen. Jeff Bingaman have introduced legislation several times during the past two years to expand the program. In April, they sponsored a bill to expand the laser visa area to 100 miles. The Silver City town council recently passed a resolution in support of such an expansion.

“I absolutely support it,” James Marshall, Silver City mayor, said. “That’s mostly based on the fact that Chihuahua citizens spend an estimates $3 million in the states every year.

“They can’t do that legally in Silver City with the current limit.”

Marshall, along with other local elected officials and a number of area residents, has been pushing for improved relations with Mexican counterparts. Last year, he traveled to Nueva Casa Grandes to spend time with that community’s mayor.

“There’s a lot we can learn from them,” Marshall said. “I think they’ve shown to be very thoughtful and progressive in resolving issues.”

According to Marshall, a delegation of Mexican officials and representatives will travel to New Mexico next month.

“We’re mostly trying to develop relationships at this point,” he said, “and identify issues that we see.”

Those include things ranging from border crossings and tourism to trans-border aquifers. With water already a hot topic in the Southwest, Marshall indicated that aquifers that straddle both sides of the border could be difficult to address.

“It’s an issue we should talk about at some point,” he said, “and it’s going to be a really complicated issue.”

While some in the area are working to improve relations with Mexico, others, like the Grant County Sheriffs Department, are tasked with policing the less positive elements near the border.

According to Capt. Joe Sublasky, deputies have participated in Operation Stonegarden since May.

“It’s funded federally through the Department of Homeland Security,” Sublasky said. “Basically, it’s a collaborative effort with the Border Patrol, border sheriffs, border communities and other agencies.”

Sublasky told the Daily Press that every Grant County sheriffs deputy recently attended an all-day training session related to the operation.

“We’re looking for any criminal activity, any drugs coming across the border, trying to stop any terrorists from coming across,” Sublasky said. “Anything that happens to involve law enforcement.”

He said the funding will continue through Nov. 2008, and said deputies are paid overtime on a voluntary basis.

“Officers work it on their day off,” he said. “On any given day, we have two officers down there.”

Sublasky said the operations has helped fill a coverage gap in Hachita for the department.

“It’s more than 100 miles to get down there,” he said. “The position we got, we filled in Mimbres; there’s just more population there.”

Because of the operation, Sublasky said, Hachita residents have a regular police presence.

“We’re down there quite often,” he said. “We really have had a lot of man power out there.”

Sheriff’s departments in Dona Aña, Hidalgo, Grant and Luna counties are participating, and are working in conjunction with the Border Patrol.

“If we make a traffic stop and there are illegal aliens,” Sublasky said, “we notify Border Patrol and they do what they need to do.”

Domenici said more Border Patrols agents are needed, and vowed to work toward that goal.

“What is clear to me is that the American people want the measures in the bill like providing 20,000 border patrol agents, constructing 370 miles of border fencing and 300 miles of border vehicle barriers, putting 105 radar and camera towers on the border, and using four unmanned aerial vehicles for border security in place before we address the millions of unauthorized aliens living and working in the United States,” Domenici said in a news release.

Two conservation organizations have also expressed a desire to see technology used to secure the border. In a report released last month, the Wildlands Project and Defenders of Wildlife stressed that north-south wildlife migration routes be maintained.

According to the report, four pathways in Arizona and New Mexico are used by several native species, including jaguars, bears and wolves, and several birds, fish and amphibians. The report stresses that “virtual wall” technologies — such as unmanned aerial surveillance, motion sensors, laser barriers, and infrared cameras — be used as an alternative to solid barriers that block wildlife movement.

Domenici has already indicated he wants to move forward with providing additional funding to secure the border before addressing the immigration process and the estimated 12 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

“I have come to the conclusion it would be more appropriate to provide $4.4 billion in border security funding in a separate emergency spending bill to fund these border security initiatives,” he said.

The naturalization process in the bill was a sticking point for Bingaman, who said the U.S. should “replace the broken system with one that is both workable and addresses the shortcomings that exist under current law.”

“As written, this legislation created an unnecessarily complicated guest worker program that would have depressed American wages and encouraged immigrants to overstay their visas,” he said, “while making dramatic changes — but not necessarily for the better — to the process individuals would use to legally immigrate to our country.”

For his part, Marshall said he wished Congress would “hurry up” and address the issues.

“There is a population down there that wants to travel and do tourism and do migrant work,” he said. “I would like to see a system developed that would facilitate that.”

Law Enforcement and Troops Team Up Along Border Part I

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(Originally published on June 29, 2007, in the Silver City Daily Press. This is the first in a series of articles on border issues and immigration. Part II and Part III.)

The radio crackles to life, and a voice recites a series of numbers and letters. I know what they are, but check with George Solis, my escort, anyway.

“GPS coordinates?” I ask.

“Yeah,” Solis replies.

We’re driving south on New Mexico 11, the two-lane road that leads from Deming to the border crossing near Columbus. Solis, a supervising Border Patrol agent, is giving me a tour of the area Thursday night. Solis tells me the system of Global Positioning System satellites circling the globe has been just one of the new tools available to agents since he began working in the Deming field office 10 years ago.

“Everything has changed,” he says.

Many of the changes came about as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks. When Congress pushed to establish a Department of Homeland Security, the Customs Service and Border Patrol were consolidated into one agency within the department: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Other changes have been more recent, since immigration reform became such a hot topic. Solis remarks on the news that, earlier in the day, the U.S. Senate voted down consideration of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. It was the second time this year the bill was defeated.

“I hear they’re not going to try again until 2009,” Solis says, which reflects what I heard many analysts report that afternoon.

The discussion turns to the National Guard units stationed along the border. In May 2006, President George W. Bush announced he would send troops to the border area to help stem the northward flow of illegal immigrants. One year ago, the first units from Utah arrived and began that mission.

Earlier, in his office, Manuel Martinez, a Border Patrol field operations supervisor, told me the National Guard units have had a tremendous impact on the number of immigrants coming north.

“Our apprehensions are down to about 1,000 a month,” Martinez said, “from sometimes 4,000 or 5,000 a month last year.”

According to Martinez, the National Guard troops allow him to put more agents “on the line,” patrolling the area between the border and New Mexico 9. The two-lane road stretches from Santa Teresa to Hachita, and farther west to the Arizona border. In Luna County, it is sometimes a few hundred yards from Mexico, and the space between is where the Border Patrol concentrates its efforts.

For operational reasons, Martinez can’t tell me the exact number of Border Patrol agents who are assigned to the sector, but says there are “about 300.” The number is growing. Congress authorized another 1,000 agents last year, and Martinez expects another 30 for his sector before the end of September. The new agents will have plenty of work, though .

“Columbus used to be our big problem area,” Solis says as we approach a checkpoint 13 miles north of the port of entry. The checkpoint, he explains, is a recent addition.

“They used to try to get to Columbus, where they could get in a car and head north.” Solis explains. “Now, they know they’ll get caught at the checkpoint.”

Martinez said most smugglers try to take a route west of New Mexico 11, aiming for the rest stop on Interstate 10 between Deming and Lordsburg. The next stop on the journey is Phoenix or Albuquerque. Solis said some smugglers head north through Silver City, then on to Reserve and Arizona. In addition, the price has gone up for immigrants seeking assistance in crossing the border.

“It used to be $1,200,” Solis says, “but now it’s up to $1,800 — and that’s just to get you to Phoenix or Albuquerque.”

Once there, he explains, illegal immigrants must pony up more money if they want to head farther west. Fewer and fewer are making it outside the Deming patrol area, thanks to a multiagency effort to crack down on border crossings.

On the radio, the agent reading the coordinates says he’s lost the trail. Solis says the man they’re tracking is an immigrant who was part of a group but fell behind.

“When we catch a group, we interview them,” he says.

The immigrants identified the smuggler, who admitted to leaving one of his “clients” behind.

“Under the law,” Solis says, “if the man dies, the smuggler could face the death penalty.”

Border Patrol agents are well suited to tracking a group of illegals, but one man poses a challenge.

“If you have five, seven, 10 people in a group, they’ll leave a trail through the grass,” Solis explains. “But one person doesn’t leave much to track.”

On the radio, the agent who was following the trail is relaying his location. Agents farther north will then travel to the correct longitude and begin searching south.

This morning, I learned the missing man was never found. Agents believe he may have walked out on his own, or that the search area identified by the captured group was not correct.

While GPS helps units coordinate their actions, or when an agent is in distress, it’s a small component of a system designed to catch border crossers as quickly as possible. There are 14 towers, equipped with visual and infrared cameras, at strategic locations in the area. Solis points to a horse corral near one of the towers.

“We used to have agents camped out in there with binoculars,” he says.

Another recent addition are the vehicle barriers. Solis tells me the hollow steel fence, which is then filled with concrete, has been very effective at stopping vehicles from making runs north.

“None of this used to be here,” he says, pointing to the vehicle barrier, and to a parking lot, some shops and a few homes that are 50 yards from the border. Now, much of the area is paved, and floodlights keep the ground lit during the night.

As we follow the vehicle barrier, a larger structure begins to loom in front of us. Solis says it’s part of the 15-foot fence approved by Congress in October.

“They’ve been working on it for about a month,” Silos says.

As we approach, I see men welding the latest section in place. Each section has nine 4-inch-wide posts welded to a horizontal support. The sections are then welded together. The fence sits in a 4-foot-deep trench, which will be filled with concrete later.

“Each section weighs 2,700 pounds,” Solis explains.

We continue on our journey west, toward Las Chepas. As we drive, Solis checks to ensure the vehicle barrier is intact.

“They cut it down all the time,” he says. “We have an agent drive this route every day to make sure it’s still up.”

Although the barrier has been an effective measure, it, too, has its problems. U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman recently sent a letter to the head of CBP, when it was discovered that a section of the barrier had been built on the Mexican side of the border.

“I encourage you to make every effort to ensure that such errors do not occur in the future,” Bingaman wrote. “Having to tear down the newly constructed barrier is not only a waste of taxpayer money, but also hampers our ability to adequately secure our borders.”

Eventually, we enter what agents call the “West Farm Area.” We’re in the Johnson Family Farm, which supplies produce under the Carzalia Valley Produce brand.

Suddenly, Solis reaches for the radio. A sensor has registered movement, and it’s near our location. Solis responds to the call, and asks for more specific information.

As we continue west on the dirt road, with rows of green produce to the north and empty fields to the south, I imagine it would be impossible to hide: the area is farmland, and as flat as anything I’ve ever seen.

Between fields, however, Solis stops the vehicle, and hops out to inspect an arroyo. He spots some footprints in the sand, but decides they’re not what we’re looking for.

A Mexican community of about 35, Las Chepas gained national notoriety last year when Gov. Bill Richardson asked Gov. Jose Reyes, his Chihuahuan counterpart, to raze the town with bulldozers.

I ask Solis about a sign on the outskirts of the community.

“They put in a toll booth,” he says. “The smugglers were bringing vans and buses full of people through here all the time, and making all the money.”

As we begin the homeward stretch north, we pass the inflatable radar blimp that motorists can see from the interstate. According to Solis, the U.S. Air Force operates the blimp to keep an eye out for low-flying aircraft.

“If they see something suspicious, they’ll check with the FAA for a flight plan,” he says. If there’s no flight plan on file for the plane, “they’ll give us a call.”
Closer to Deming, we begin to see lightning flash to the south and east. I ask Solis how late his shift will last.

“It depends on how things go down there,” he said. “If something happens during shift change, you know you’re going to be late.”

As we pull into the Border Patrol compound, Solis turns and asks, “It’s Thursday, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” I respond.

Fire Cache Supplies Firefighters and Airtankers

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(Originally published in the Silver City Daily Press. Part of a series of articles on wildfires which led to a New Mexico Press Association award for Continuing Coverage. The accompanying photographs garnered an NMPA award for Photo Series.)

With a thunderous roar pulsing from its four engines, the P3 airtanker taxis and prepares to take on more than 2,500 gallons of fire retardant.

The plane has just returned to the Grant County Airport, where it and three other slurry bombers are based in the fight against wildfires in the Gila National Forest. The airport also serves as one of 11 regional fire caches in the United States; it is the principal supply source for wildland firefighting in New Mexico, as well as parts of Arizona and Texas.

Through Friday, the cache had shipped some $5,693,000 worth of supplies and equipment to the 1,835 firefighters in southwest New Mexico. The cache inventory includes everything from the clothes firefighters wear to floodlights and generators.

According to Alex Tovar, cache floor manager, the 10,500-square-foot warehouse at the site maintains a year-round supply of equipment. When a fire is detected, base personnel ship materials to firefighters.

“We supply all the camp items for firefighters,” he said. “That includes shirts, pants, tools, hoses, generators, backpacks, tents and sleeping bags.”

Dottie Clark, deputy cache administrator, said each item is tracked when it leaves, and those supplies are organized into kits.

“A coffee kit, for example, will include the coffee, cups, filters, sugar, urn and propane — everything they need to make coffee,” she said.

Rather than listing each individual item on an invoice, Clark said, the kits help staff organize the items and make tracking simpler. If the cache begins running low on a particular item, one of the other caches will step up and bolster the inventory.

To date, four personnel from the Northern Rockies Area fire cache have arrived to assist, and more than $2.8 million in materials has been shipped to Grant County. Included in that figure are close to 100 one-ton bins containing the powdered base for fire retardant. It contains a “proprietary mix” of ammonium sulfates, ammonium phosphates and guar gum.

Buck Gomez, air base manager, said each bin costs more than $1,300, and the powder inside is mixed with about 1,667 gallons of water. The retardant is tested for consistency before it is loaded into one of the four airtankers.

Two P3 tankers and two P2V aircraft are based at the Grant County Airport. Neptune Aviation, of Missoula, Mont., contracts the older, twin-engine P2Vs, while the larger P3s are operated by Aerounion Corp., of Chico, Calif.

As the P3, No. 22, taxis toward the runway, the orange paint on its fuselage stands out against the gray asphalt and blue sky. Gomez said the P3s can average about four trips per tank fighting the Bear Fire, with fuel and distance the limiting factors. About halfway through a typical 45-minute flight, a P3 will drop 2,550 gallons — about 11 tons — of retardant. The planes dump the mixture on unburned trees and structures, to create a line containing the fire. The P2Vs carry a smaller, nine-ton load, and must refuel after each trip.

When weather and smoke conditions permit, as they did Friday, crews fly for about 12 hours. That translates into about 10 sorties a day for the P3s, and about eight for the P2Vs. Each aircraft has a pilot and co-pilot, as well as a mechanic, and the crews work six days before taking one day off.

Four ground crew members mix and load the retardant and fuel the planes, while another supervises ramp operations. A dispatcher coordinates the action. Gomez said the airport also serves as a base of operations for heli-tankers and other
helicopters fighting area fires, and air-attack aircraft. Personnel in the smaller planes loiter over the fire area, communicating with observers on the ground and with the slurry bombers and helicopters in the air.

The operation is coordinated with more than a dozen federal agencies, along with state and local resources. The fire cache system is just one piece of a logistical network designed to get the closest adequate resources to a fire or other emergency. Personnel and air assets are also sent to the scene of a fire.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman in March called on the Forest Service to build a new cache facility at the airport. He also wrote letters to the Senate Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations, asking it to build a new fire cache for Silver City.

“We’ve been trying for a couple years to get the Bush administration to set aside funding to build a new fire cache in Grant County, but so far they haven’t been willing to make this a priority,” Bingaman said. “The Bear Fire demonstrates the dramatic need for a new cache that would make it more efficient and cost-effective to fight blazes in this
part of our state.

Aside from fires, the cache also responds with supplies during other natural disasters. After hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast last year, the cache mobilized in support.

The Skates, Reserve Complex and Bear firefighters from across the country have started returning to their homes, or are being sent to other fires in other states. When they leave, the equipment they were issued will be processed at the cache, with usable materials cleaned, sanitized and refurbished. When a kit or other item is shipped to a unit in the field, that unit becomes responsible financially. It is then credited for returning supplies.

Tovar said cache personnel clean tents, evaluate fire hoses and gather clothing to be laundered. Coffee kits are sorted, and are reconstituted from the remains of partially depleted ones. Many of the items are then boxed and placed back in the cache inventory.

As of Friday, about half of the materials shipped by the cache had been returned. Clark said its inventory was valued at $2.9 million, ready to be sent again should the need arise.

Area Families Impacted by Skates Fire

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(Originally published June 20, 2006 in the Silver City Daily Press. Part of a series of articles on wildfires which led to a New Mexico Press Association award for Continuing Coverage.)

When Ralph and Natalie Troski moved to New Mexico, it was to escape the hurricanes that frequently blasted their Kissimee, Fla., home. Two days after they unloaded their belongings from a truck, firefighters asked them to leave their Lake Roberts home, due to the approach of the Skates Fire. The Troskis refused to evacuate.

“We moved here last week,” Ralph Troski said. “The fire was already here, but it was out toward the Skates area, and we never thought it was going to be coming out this way. “We were supposed to close on the house the day they told us to get out of here.”

He told the Daily Press on Monday that Natalie made the decision to stay.

“My wife said ‘We’re not leaving, because if we leave, we’re going to end up losing the house, and everything we own is in the house now.'”

U.S. Forest Service personnel, aided by the New Mexico State Police, Grant County Sheriff’s Department, New Mexico Department of Transportation, and Santa Clara police officers, evacuated close to 220 area residents last week. At 10 this morning, the evacuation order was lifted.

No structures were lost when the blaze breached a hand-cut fire line June 15. Some people went home Saturday, when the Forest Service escorted residents into the area to survey the effects of the fire.

The Daily Press spoke with two couples who returned Saturday: Ron and Martha Knuckles and Ralph and Brenda Kelley. The Knuckleses live in the Lake Roberts subdivision, while the Kelleys’ home is about a mile west on Trout Valley Drive. Both had nothing but praise for Forest Service and other personnel fighting the fire.

“The fire department and all these folks have been wonderful,” Martha Knuckles said.

The couple evacuated Thursday, and traveled to the Red Cross emergency shelter at San Lorenzo.

“We were in the shelter, and we stayed one night,” she said. “We had food, and we had a bag of goodies. We were treated very well.”

Ron Knuckles said the evacuation order was facilitated by regular briefings at the Sapillo Creek Volunteer Fire Station.

“It was pretty smooth,” he said. “We had plenty of time to get out.”

The Skates Fire is 40 percent contained, and has charred more than 11,400 acres.

According to Gabriel Partido, Forest Service spokesman, the crews are continuing to patrol the northern boundary of the fire.

On Monday, a helicopter was coordinating efforts with ground crews to address areas of intense fire activity. Partido told residents at a briefing Monday night that fire engines and personnel would remain in the Lake Roberts area until assured the fire is contained.

“The firefighters here are lifesavers, you know,” Ralph Troski said.

Ralph Kelley said he wanted to find some way of showing his appreciation for the firefighters. He gave the Daily Press a tour of his home, overlooking the Sapillo Creek Drainage, on Monday.

“I want to show you what the firefighters saved,” he said. From a screened deck on the south side of his house, Kelley pointed out a ridgeline on the opposite side of the valley, less than half-a-mile away.

“That’s where the fire came over the ridge,” he said.

According to Kelley, flames came within 20 feet of some structures, though his home was out of harm’s way. During Monday’s briefing, Partido said the Forest Service has been grateful to the residents affected by the fire.

“We really appreciate your patience and understanding,” he said. “I’m sorry this happened, and that you had to stay away from your homes so long, but you made this a lot easier for the firefighters by your being here.”

A public meeting with the incident commander, Mike Dietrich, will be held Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Sapillo Creek Volunteer Fire Station. Partido said Dietrich will brief residents on fire activity, and answer questions regarding firefighters’ efforts.