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Blackwater's California Wildfire Relief Efforts Backfire With Local Residents

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While hundreds of thousands of citizens were fleeing Southern California's wildfires in October, Blackwater USA was charging back in.

While the fires still burned, executives from the private security firm personally delivered food and supplies to displaced residents and eventually set up temporary housing.

But don't accuse Blackwater of taking advantage of the disaster for the purposes of self-promotion. The company insists that it is just a friendly corporate citizen.

"There is nothing political about it," said Anne Tyrell, Director of Public Affairs for Blackwater USA in a Friday phone conversation. "We're helping our fellow people out there who need it."

Around the time of the fires, public and congressional scrutiny on the North Carolina-based company was reaching a fever pitch. Congress initiated a series of hearings and legislative efforts in the aftermath of the killing of 17 civilians in Iraq in September. And Blackwater had to be fearful of how its controversial work overseas might imperil its efforts to build an 824-acre training facility near Potrero, California, ground zero for the Harris Fire, which burned 90,000 acres.

Anti-Blackwater activists who are trying to stop the facility from being built started adding to the company's PR headaches. They warned that the Blackwater West base might light up San Diego County's chaparral again with future live fire training exercises. With a recall election in Potrero scheduled for December that could derail the project, the disaster seemed likely to help the activists' cause.

But quickly enough, Blackwater fought back with an aggressive public relations offensive.

The company's local vice president first tried to tamp down claims that the proposed San Diego County base would pose a fire hazard. Brian Bonfiglio told the Virginian-Pilot that the base could actually help fight future wildfires.

Local news outlets then started reporting on Bonfiglio racing to the rescue in his white Hummer, ferrying supplies to small town dwellers cut off from the outside world by the fires. Blackwater then arranged to bring in even more supplies than could fit into Bonfiglio's truck.

Ultimately, Blackwater set up a tent city for up to 88 people displaced by the fires, and offered them electricity and other necessities.

Tyrell, the company's spokeswoman, went to pains to emphasize that Blackwater's help to fire-affected Californians was occurring on a small, person-to-person scale. She pointed out that company's west coast operation does not extend much beyond Bonfiglio himself.

But the company's own photos showed that it was ready to engage in a significant effort, deploying a well-equipped "rapid response team" as it erected the tent city.

Even with the Blackwater brand front and center in the photo the company distributed, Tyrell sought to portray the company's role in the tent city modestly.

"We may have provided the 'big' items but we are just one spoke in a very big wheel, meaning that there are upwards of 5 different organizations involved with the site," she wrote.

Many area residents, even those who had been strongly critical of the proposed Blackwater West facility, were thankful for the company's contributions. But the public radio station KPBS reported that Blackwater had used its leverage with local politicians and law enforcement to get past road closures. And critics of the Blackwater West site allege that at the same time, other private relief efforts were prevented from going into the areas burned by the Harris Fire.

"There were some people who were attempting to bring supplies up but they were turned away by the Sheriff's Deputy," in Potrero, said Raymond Lutz, Coordinator of Citizens Oversight Projects, which is fighting the Blackwater West facility. "Blackwater came in at the same time, and they gave supplies to people who came up, and the relief station was manned by pro-Blackwater people, and they made their Blackwater hat pins available. It was orchestrated."

Blackwater USA denies that it had any privileged access to the areas affected by the fire.

"Anyone delivering supplies during the time that we were could have passed through the checkpoint traveling from Campo to Potrero," Tyrell insisted. "Based on the obvious trailer full of stuff and explanation, you were permitted to proceed."

But whether or not the company had privileged access, its temporary tent housing isn't getting many takers. The San Diego Union Tribute reported that only two displaced residents were sleeping in the facility, which is being run by relief workers from the Churches of Christ.

"A lot of people I talked to, they're not really interested because of Blackwater," said one local resident.

To an activist fighting the west coast base, it wasn't a surprise that local residents expressed concern.

"They will get special access to authorities, and they are by definition not under anybody's laws yet again," argued Rick Jacobs of the Courage Campaign. "The way they did it underscores why people are worried about them."