CALEXICO — A pair of major fires in central Calexico were likely set by transients, including a massive four-alarm blaze downtown on Jan. 20 that required aid from as far away as Yuma, a city fire official said.
About 50 firefighters
from every department in Imperial County and from both Yuma’s city and Rural
Metro departments assisted to stop the spread of a fire in the 300 block of
Rockwood Avenue on the morning of Jan. 20. It left the vacant former Elks Lodge
building partially collapsed and unsafe to enter as of Jan. 22, Calexico Fire
Chief Diego Favila explained.
Favila said due to its
partial collapse crews have not been back into that building at 308-310
Rockwood to investigate the fire cause. Investigators were relying on
eyewitness accounts and interviews with property owners to piece together what
happened. The investigation is ongoing, he said.
However, the fire will
likely be the result of squatters, the chief explained, who often enter
abandoned buildings in the city and start fires to either warm themselves or
cook. He said neither power nor gas was running to the former Elks Lodge as of
Jan. 20 when the fire was first reported to the department around 8:20 a.m.
The fires come as the
city has helped arrange temporary winter shelter for the homeless and sought
measures to reduce downtown blight, including a proposal requiring locking
commercial trash bins to prevent the frequent arson fires in them. By any
measure, the recent structure fires mark a major escalation of the arson
Trespassers are believed to
have started a blaze at a vacant house on the corner of Emerson Avenue and
Seventh Street, on the bubble of downtown, on Jan. 17. A second alarm was
called and mutual aid crews from the county, El Centro and Holtville assisted,
Both locations have been
the site of previous fires lit by trespassers, Favila added. The power and gas were
also off at the Emerson house.
Flames Impede Fire Crews
As for the Rockwood Ave. fire,
reports came into the department through 911 reporting heavy smoke was
billowing from every window and opening of the two-story building, Favila said.
Initially, Calexico crews
went in for an “offensive attack” but were met with heavy flames at the
doorways and so reverted to a “defensive” position to protect nearby structures
and businesses, Favila explained.
The chief added it took
about an hour and a half to get the Rockwood fire under control, but by then a
wall had collapsed. Crews remained on hand for much of the day. Four nearby
businesses were affected, and they sustained minor smoke and water damage, but
all were expected to be back open and operating by Jan. 24, he said.
Favila said the Elks
Lodge had been vacant for several years. That time frame could not be
confirmed, but the structure had not functioned as an Elks Lodge in the city
since the fraternal organization’s charter was suspended by the national office
in Chicago in 2012.
Former Elks Lodge member
Tony Tirado, 87, said he was called the morning of the fire and drove out with
his son to watch fire crews attempt to save the building.
“To me it was really sad
to see it like that,” Tirado said Jan. 22.
The former member said he
had many fond memories of drinking at the lodge bar, going to cookouts and New
Year’s Eve dances at the lodge, both in the old second-story location on the
other side of the building, and in the newer lodge that faced Rockwood.
Tirado said he intended
to contact some former Elks Lodge members to see if arrangements could be made with
the regional Elks office in Palm Springs to salvage the flagpole and a statue
outside the building to memorialize the former lodge.
It wasn’t immediately
clear why Calexico Lodge No. 1382 was closed in 2012. A former El Centro Elks
Lodge board member recalled that declining enrollment and financial issues were
part of the reason.
Bryan Klatt, the grand
secretary of the national Benevolent Protective Order of Elks in Chicago,
confirmed Jan. 22 the Calexico lodge was “defunct,” but said he would offer no
further information because the Elks is a private organization.
A published media report
from 2012 simply stated the lodge had its charter suspended at the national
level for five years due to multiple violations, but more information was
unavailable. Calexico Mayor Bill Hodge said Jan. 22 he had heard the closure
stemmed over financial problems.
Tirado had no information
about why the lodge closed.
Meanwhile, Favila said
911 calls came into the department regarding the Jan. 17 fire on Emerson around
Firefighters arrived to
find the house was fully engulfed and a second alarm was sounded to assist protecting
nearby structures and businesses, including a couple of trucking lots, he said.
No firefighters were hurt
in either blaze and no transients were seen in either vicinity when crews
arrived, Favila said.