Rudy Reyes Is Dismayed With Lack of Progress On Fire Issues
by Marc Snelling
San Diego County native Rudy Reyes is a study in perseverance. The 2003 survivor of the Cedar wildfires has a powerful story to tell. Rudy came to be known as a hero to many locals after the worst wildfire in California’s history swept through San Diego’s back-country. During the fires Rudy, placing the safety of his family above his own, ensured they got to safety before leaving himself.
Reyes built his one bedroom home, only months before the fires, on his family’s Wildcat Canyon Road lot. His house and his family’s 5-bedroom home were among the 2,300 homes destroyed in this fire. On October 26th 2003 Rudy was awakened by his sister to an orange glow and a warning that fire was moving in rapidly. Realizing there was no chance to save the homes, Rudy made sure his family members were safely in their vehicles before he left.
When Rudy attempted to drive out the air was so thick with smoke that his car would not start. Out of options, he doused himself in water, covered his face with his hands and prepared to run for his life. He ran one and a half miles down the road through the wall of flames until reaching a neighbor in their vehicle. The neighbor drove him to the bottom of the road where an emergency crew was setup. With visible serious burn injuries paramedics sedated him and he began his lengthy recovery.
His recovery began at the UCSD Burn Center, where he remained unconscious for 2 months. His run through the wildfire burned him over approximately 70% of his body. He lost his left ear, most of a finger, and was left temporarily blind by the flames.
Reyes’ recovery involved 28 surgeries, including a new lasik procedure that brought his vision back. His recovery also included the use of medicinal marijuana, in the form of lotions and salves to heal his damaged skin. He also used a vaporizer in the hospital, which he cited as more effective pain relief than strongest pain drugs routinely prescribed. On March 4th 2004, five months after the fire, he was the last burn victim released from hospital.
The story of Rudy’s perseverance does not end after his release from hospital. Reyes stayed busy after his recovery. He earned a degree in Archaeology, and continued his teaching career, while helping organize the Barona Cultural Center and Museum. His archaeological work is currently on display at the El Cajon courthouse as the ‘Barona Photo Collection’.
Grateful to the citizens of San Diego County who helped him and other burn survivors, Rudy has decided to use his life to give back. His gift for sincere and articulate speech, have made him an excellent spokesperson for organizations such as the Burn Institute and CHAD/United Way. He served as a mentor for young burn survivors for the Burn Institute, who describe him as “truly an inspiration to those who have met him.”
Four years after the Cedar Fire, Wildcat Canyon Road was again part of the area effected by a massive back-country wildfire. The Witch Creek fire was one of multiple fires that burned the county again. Witnessing many of the same problems in this wildfire, Rudy is determined to take his public service to the next level. Dismayed by a lack of leadership from the County on this issue he has decided to take matters in to his own hands, through a campaign for the County Board of Supervisors.
Reyes points to decisions by the board ending the program of inmates in County facilities removing brush, their failure to create a unified fire authority, as well as continuing to let development proceed in fire prone areas. The majority of San Diego ‘s wildfire-prone areas are within County Board of Supervisors, District 2. The seat currently occupied by Dianne Jacob. Reyes notes Jacob “had fire trucks parked on her property” in Jamul during both wildfires, and has singled out some of her official positions for criticism.
Two positions in particular are irksome to Reyes, and to many of Jacob’s constituents. Her delaying tactics in the creation of a county-wide fire authority, and her controversial vote in a 3-2 decision to sue the State of California ‘s over the Compassionate Use Act, enacted in 1996. (Also known as Proposition 215) Reyes notes the board has enough resources to fight a losing lawsuit to overturn State law, but not enough to continue effective fire prevention programs.
He blasted the county “slush fund” which he says is doled out to groups each year “to make sure nobody challenges them at election time”. The slush-fund was the subject of a 2005 grand jury investigation which showed nearly $1 million in missing receipts in the 7 years since the program’s inception.
At the time Jacob admitted the program had shoddy book-keeping but pointed to the slush-fund as evidence of the county’s health saying, and as she stated to the North County Times: “Because county government is healthy, stable and well-managed, we have an opportunity to re-invest tax dollars back into the community.”
The secretive grant program gives each county’s supervisor up to $2 million a year from the county’s general fund. They are able to distribute this money to projects and non-profit groups as they wish with no written policy. Up against that kind of money and a 16-year incumbency, Rudy shows the same determination that has come to define his public life as a burn survivor.
“They have all been there long enough and it is time for a change.” Says Reyes referring to the five supervisors who have sat together uninterrupted for more than a decade.
Visit Rudy’s campaign website at
(The vote for District 2 Supervisor is June 3rd, 2008 . District 2 includes; Poway, Alllied Gardens, Del Cerro, La Mesa, Ramona, Santee, Lakeside, El Cajon, Julian, and southeast San Diego County.)
Marc Snelling is a past member of Ocean Beach Grassroots Organization, and is responsible for the publication of OB Rags during the early years of this century.