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Calexico fires
The four-alarm blaze that destroyed the vacant former Elks Lodge at Third Street and Rockwood Avenue in Calexico on Jan. 20 is the largest of the recent fires city officials suspect have been caused by homeless squatters. Photos courtesy of the city of Calexico

Transient-related Fires ‘Ongoing’ Problem For Calexico

CALEXICO — Two major structure fires in Calexico believed to have been started by transients squatting in vacant buildings over the past two weeks are examples of what one fire official described as an escalating problem.

“This is an ongoing problem, frankly,” Calexico fire Capt. Eduardo Rivera said during an interview Jan. 24.

In January alone, there have been six to eight significant fires in Calexico that in some way have been connected to the transient population, either through the presence of homeless at the scene or because they were known areas where the homeless congregate, Rivera said.

On Jan. 20, a four-alarm blaze ripped through the vacant former Elks Lodge building on the corner of Third Street and Rockwood Avenue. It required help from about 50 firefighters from crews around the region to bring it under control and protect nearby structures.

That came on the heels of a Jan. 17 fire that fully engulfed a vacant home at the corner of Emerson Avenue and Seventh Street.

Both cases are still under investigation by fire officials and no transients were seen in the immediate area of either fire, Rivera said. However, Fire Chief Diego Favila has said both incidents were likely caused by fires meant to either provide warmth or for cooking by area homeless since there was no electricity or gas turned on at either location.

Other January Blazes

During January, fire crews responded to several fires tied to the homeless population in the city, including an earlier initial fire at the Seventh and Emerson location that occurred either Jan. 12 or 14, Rivera said.

The first Emerson fire started on one side of the building and was extinguished, but the Jan. 17 fire finished off the building, Rivera added. Transients were seen around the location at the time of the first fire, he said.

In other examples of the escalation, Rivera said a cooking fire got out of hand and burned a makeshift structure made of wood pallets near the corner of Imperial Avenue and Highway 98. Also, there was a significant fire at the New River bottom area near Nosotros Park where a group of homeless are known to have lived. It engulfed more wood pallets being used as shelter structures.

For the Fire Department the fires have been a continual problem, Rivera said. In 2019, at least 100 fires of various sizes were tied to the homeless population in the city, he estimated.

Just what can be done to tackle the problem depends on several factors, Rivera and Calexico Police Chief Gonzalo Gerardo said.

In addressing the issue of vacant buildings, Rivera said the city has proposed changes to its nuisance-abatement ordinance that are intended to assist code enforcement officers in dealing with unsecured buildings. The changes, which include better defining what constitutes a public nuisance — such as not securing vacant buildings — was preliminarily approved during a Jan. 22 city council meeting.

Rivera said he hopes “nuisance abatement does the trick.”

The results of the code enforcement angle might take some time, however, as any changes to the ordinance still must go through final approval and be on the books for 30 days before they become enforceable.

City Chiefs Meet

Meanwhile, Gerardo said during an interview Jan. 24 that he met with the fire chief the week of Jan. 20 to discuss some proactive measures that can be taken to assist the departments in getting a handle on the fires.

The measures include “increasing patrols in those areas” where the fires have been occurring and to continue to develop the rapport between police and the homeless to both report anything out of the ordinary and dissuade lighting fires in potentially troublesome settings, Gerardo said.

There is hope the council’s recent approval of more cameras throughout the city will help police, he added, though still pending is the installation of a better computer server needed to run them.

The police department will continue to consult “our database to know who our arson registrants are,” Gerardo added.

Those in the city who have been previously convicted of setting smaller arson fires don’t see much jail time due to state legislation to address prison overcrowding, Gerardo said. The measures have the effect of overpopulating local jails and putting re-offending criminals back onto the streets, he added. Gerardo added getting other city departments and entities involved can also prove helpful. Examples are the city Planning Department and even the Business Improvement District, both of whom could work with the owners of vacant buildings to find tenants.

This story is featured in the Jan 30, 2020 e-Edition.

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