As wildfires empty out neighborhoods, strangers are found slipping in, authorities say

First come the flames. Then come the strangers.

Each year, as natural disasters drive residents from their homes and empty out neighborhoods for days on end, law enforcement officers report finding people inside the evacuation zones who shouldn't be there.

Monday afternoon in Lake County, where hundreds of people have been forced from their homes by the growing Pawnee Fire, authorities patrolling the evacuated community of Spring Valley came upon the latest such suspect.

Lakeport police Officer Andrew Welter was on patrol when he spotted a vehicle driving down Spring Valley Road with expired license plates and made a traffic stop, the Lake County Sheriff's Department said.

The driver was identified as Christian Hiran Campos Esquivel, 30, from Ukiah, the department said, but he could not explain what he was doing there in the middle of a wildfire zone.

"Campos said he was working in the Spring Valley community, but was unable to identify who he was working for or what he was doing," sheriff's officials said, adding that authorities determined he did not have a valid driver's license.

"A consensual search of Campos' vehicle revealed he was in possession of approximately two pounds of marijuana and a loaded handgun," the department said in a news release. "Other items found inside the Toyota were a small weighing scale and binoculars."

Campos Esquivel, who was identified as a migrant worker, was booked into the Lake County Jail on charges of being an "unauthorized person in disaster zone, possession of more than 28.5 grams of cannabis, possession of cannabis for sale, transportation of cannabis for sale, possession of a concealed firearm in vehicle, unlicensed driver," the department said.

Residents of fire zones and other natural disaster areas who refuse to evacuate routinely say they are afraid to leave their homes and property unprotected from trespassers, and arrests in recent years show that fear sometimes is warranted.

Last October, as the Tubbs Fire ravaged Sonoma County during the fall firestorms, sheriff's officials said they arrested six people on suspicion of looting, including one man who was found in possession of an emergency fire shelter that they believe had been taken from an out-of-county fire department that had sent firefighters in to help battle the blaze.

A series of looting incidents occurred in February 2017 during the Oroville Dam crisis, when 188,000 people were evacuated from Sutter, Yuba and Butte counties over fears that the dam's emergency spillway might fail.

At least six people were detained then because of reports of looting, including one incident where a Vietnam veteran's home was burglarized and his medals taken. The medals were later recovered and three people were arrested.

Fire and law enforcement officials strongly encourage residents to leave their homes when evacuations are ordered, and they rely on an army of resources to patrol neighborhoods to prevent crimes.

In Lake County, officers from Lakeport police, Clearlake police, the California State Parks, state Fish and Wildlife department and California Highway Patrol currently are providing such protection.

"They are patrolling for unauthorized people in the area and contacting them to determine their reason for being in the area," the Sheriff's Department said.

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