On September 19, the unincorporated community of Campo threw a once-in-a-century party. It featured a parade, cavalry reenactors, former buffalo soldiers stationed in Campo pre-World War II, and home-baked goodies. But it wasn't the attractions that folks were celebrating. They celebrated the concurrence of the date and the area's zip code, 91906.
It's a testament to the spirit of this town, located 50 miles east of San Diego on the Mexican border, where the high desert and the mountains meet, that 200 people would crowd into the un-air-conditioned Campo Community Center at 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday during what was supposed to be a Santa Ana. God rewarded that spirit by sending the mildest Santa Ana in memory. Under a blue dome of sky and in 75-degree air, the crowd gathered on the center's 20-by-100-foot deck to watch a parade of vehicles from the Highway Patrol, Border Patrol, local sheriff's office, and fire agencies serving the area: the local department, the Rural Fire Protection District, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The locals cheered for all, but nobody could blame them for cheering the fire trucks more, not in this fire-prone region.
After the parade, everyone looked down the dirt road. But the cavalry charge didn't materialize. The partygoers moved back into the building. The vinyl-tiled, white-walled meeting room of the Campo Community Center has an outdated feel, but it's clean and maintained. After a short presentation hosted by Campo's postmaster, Jan Martin, attendees discussed the area's past, present, and future over chocolate-pudding pie and oatmeal cookies.
Pete Scully has "lived here off and on for 30 years and worked here off and on for 30 years." Scully is tall and broad-shouldered, his blond hair turning gray. He's a chief for the California Department of Forestry's fire department, working out of the station a couple of miles up State Route 94 in the section of Campo known as Cameron Corners. In Scully's firefighting mind, what Campo has is 20 years of unburned vegetation and prime conditions for a conflagration. "The last two days have been the first real Santa Ana conditions we've had this year," he said. "We expected to be busy. Usually there are three or four spots that flare up around the county in conditions like this. We've all been on our toes waiting. But so far," he looked for wood to knock but none was within reach, "there's been nothing. Nobody knows why."
If an area doesn't burn this year, what happens to the fuel next year?
"What happens is it continues to grow so it gets bigger," he answered. "But as it gets older and older, it drops a lot of dead twigs and branches on the ground and on the brush itself. So when the fire finally comes through, there's a lot more fuel, and it's completely dry."
A half-mile up the road from the community center is an EastLake-style housing development called Campo Hills -- 221 homes, plus a park and community pool, wedged onto 92 acres. It's an odd sight in an area where small lots are between 5 and 10 acres, big lots are over 80, and some of the old cattle ranches stretch over 2000. "It's kind of funny," Scully said, "when you drive in there, it's like you've been transported downtown -- paved streets, sidewalks, curbs, and little cracker-box houses."
Scully said Campo Hills and other proposed housing developments inspire passion among the locals. "There's a group that's adamant about no growth. Then there's a group that wants to grow. Then there's the vast majority that feel like growth is inevitable to some degree."
Though he counts himself among the third group, Scully's further comments betrayed a frustration with growth and development. Standing near the refreshment table, Scully said, "What I personally have a problem with is developers who come in, make all their money, then leave. Meanwhile, there's no water, there's no sewer facility, there's no road facility, there's no fire department, there's no police protection. The infrastructure isn't there to support them. They come in, they do their thing, they make their money, and then they wash their hands of it. They couldn't give a flying flip about the community. The roads coming in here can't really even support Campo Hills. The main travel route in and out of here is Buckman Springs Road." Buckman Springs Road, ten miles long and two lanes wide, is the most direct route from Campo to Interstate 8. "When I leave, if it's during normal daylight hours, I go out to La Posta Road [parallel to Buckman Springs, but four miles east] because I can't stand going up and down Buckman anymore. It's already traffic jammed just with the houses they've put on Campo Hills. So what will happen when they put another thousand houses out here? And there are no plans to widen that road or do anything else about it."
"I call Campo Hills 'the Projects,' " said Mark Ovadia, a docent at the Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum, whose Campo branch is a mile north of the community center, just on the other side of Campo Hills. Ovadia was dressed in jeans, a train-themed T-shirt, and a conductor's hat with the word "Trainman" engraved in the brass band. When he spoke, his fuzzy gray and white beard bobbed hypnotically. He stood by a table full of flyers and printouts advertising his museum. "People ask me, 'How could you call those beautiful new houses 'the Projects'? Well, high density is high density."
Fifty-two-year-old Ovadia grew up in the Bronx. He knows high density. "It's the reason I left the Bronx," he said.
Ironically, density is the reason Ovadia moved to Campo. "Before moving here, my wife and I lived on 40 acres by ourselves out in Jacumba. We lived off the grid. We used the generator to pump water up out of the well into a 1000-gallon storage tank. We had solar panels, propane, and AC/DC appliances. But my wife wanted more community and convenience. And she wanted to be able to get television other than Mexican TV. But here all we can get is Channel 8 and 49, and 49 is Mexican."