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
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
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,
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
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,”
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.