UPDATED 4:30 p.m. June 29: County officials confirmed that the remains of one individual has been found among the ashes of the five-alarm fire that burned more than 30 single-family homes and displaced 154 residents, or the about 43 families, June 28 in township of Niland.
The case has been turned over to the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office and is pending an investigation, according to a press release from the county sent out about 4:30 p.m. June 29.
Around 11 a.m., Imperial County Fire Chief Alfredo Estrada said Imperial County Planning and Development Services inspectors and fire personnel were on scene June 29 combing through the destruction to look for anyone who might have been caught in the fire. At the time, no injuries or loss of life had been reported of either Niland residents or fire personnel.
Personnel from Planning and Development Services were still assessing the site to determine the number of building structures that were lost at the time the county sent out its press release announcing a body had been discovered.
Personnel from the Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, U.S. Border Patrol, and law enforcement personnel from the cities of Calipatria, Brawley and Imperial assisted with evacuations and protecting the safety and welfare of the people within the impacted area, according to a county press release. Fire units from all stations within Imperial County along with units from neighboring Yuma and Type 1 and Type 3 strike teams from San Diego County worked through the night to contain the fire.
At the height of the fire, about 150 fire personnel were on scene battling the blaze that swept through the main part of Niland, prompting the evacuation of everyone living in the area, the chief said.
That was from 500 to 600 residents, he said.
Although social media reports were that the apartment complex near where the fire started was burned, Estrada said firefighters saved the complex. All the structures that burned to the ground were single-family swellings, he added.
Meanwhile, the county of Imperial, working with other local agencies, opened a Local Assistance Center to assist individuals and families displaced by the fire. A LAC is a one-stop-shop with critical government and support services for residents impacted by the fire. Representatives from the Imperial County Department of Social Services, Public Health Department, Behavioral Health Services and Workforce and Economic Development Services will join those from Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo Inc., Comite Civico del Valle, Campesino Unidos and American Red Cross to work with the displaced families to address their immediate needs.
For additional information on available assistance, the public is encouraged to call (442) 265-6060.
The LAC is located inside Wirt Auditorium on the campus of Calipatria High School, 501 W. Main St.
The fire started around 6:30 p.m. June 28 and both the cause and the point of origin are still under investigation, he said.
Estrada said the strike teams from out of the area returned home about 5 a.m.
The chief believed some Niland residents were returning home this morning as Imperial Irrigation District continued to restore power to the area.
IID officials said about 80 homes were still without power around noon June 29. The district had already restored power to some 414 dwellings.
Meanwhile, Imperial County Supervisor Ryan Kelley, who wasn’t available to speak to the media on the night of June 28, personally paid for hotel rooms for 12 to 15 of the families who lost their homes in the fire, an official at the scene told a Calexico Chronicle/Imperial Valley Weekly reporter at an evacuation center staging area set up at Erickson Gymnasium at Calipatria High School.
The evacuation center was not housing any evacuees, but was merely a staging ground.
The American Red Cross Imperial Valley Service Center was on site testing evacuees for COVID-19, handing out Gatorade, and assessing the needs of the 500 to 600 people among those evacuated. Those additional families who lost their homes whose rooms were not covered by Kelley were issued hotel or motel vouchers from the American Red Cross, an official at the site told our reporter.
Families went to hotels/motels in Calipatria and Brawley or stayed with family members.
“There was a fire in the field behind the Niland apartment complex, the apartments where we live. The entire apartment complex was burned down and over half of Niland has burned. Everybody is without houses. We have no place to stay tonight,” said resident Katherine Nigos outside the evacuation center as she was waiting to be assessed by American Red Cross officials June 28.
Nigos was home when the fire started.
“We saw the fire in the field behind us and all we could do is get our kids and get out of there. All we could do was grab what we could carry and get in the car, or else you’re gonna burn with it,” Nigos told a Calexico Chronicle reporter.
Nigos has five children and will be staying the night in a room provided by American Red Cross.
“I hope they can help, especially people with children, with a place to stay, food, shelter. At this point, everybody has nothing, over half the town,” Nigos said when asked what county officials could do to help families displaced by the fire.
“I’m pretty sure my house did burn down. I lived in the Niland apartment complex and was not home when the fire started,” said Monica Valdez, who was turned back before entering Niland by fire personnel when she attempted to go home. She was sent to the evacuation center.
Only able to assume her home and all her family’s possessions were burned, Valdez was unable to contemplate what tomorrow will look like.
“We’re hoping that after everything calms down we can go back tomorrow and see what happened, but we don’t know yet,” said Valdez’s daughter, Monica Ruiz.
The Ruiz family got good news the morning of June 29, when they found out the apartment complex they live in was saved by firefighters. They posed a photo in front of their home June 29.
The fire was reported to be about 80 percent contained shortly after midnight June 29, according to veteran news reporter, George Gale, who posted to his personal Facebook page through the evening and night June 28 and June 29.
The fire started around Highway 111 and Fourth Street. Around 7 or 7:30 p.m. a third-alarm was called, and people were being advised to stay away from the area, according to an Imperial County Fire Department Facebook posting.
The fire reportedly started at or right near the Niland Apartments at 17 W. Fourth St., just near 111.
About 8 p.m. a fifth alarm was sounded, and some 500 to 600 people were evacuated from the township, according to Gale.
“No injuries, as far as officials know. County fire chief (Alfredo) Estrada says the wind is making it very difficult to get a handle on the fire. Every Department in the county has reported to the fire. Currently waiting for strike teams from North San Diego County,” Gale’s post continued.
Apparently Imperial County Sheriff’s Office, Brawley police and Imperial police assisted with the evacuation, according to scanner traffic.
Strike teams with the State Office of Emergency Services/Cal Fire, San Diego County Fire Department and the Yuma area were called to the scene.
Niland’s population as of the 2010 Census was listed as 1,006 residents. The total area of the township was listed as .402 miles.
Niland, formerly known as Old Beach, Imperial Junction and Hobgood, is about eight miles north of Calipatria and two miles southeast of the Salton Sea. It’s population was down from 1,143 in the 2000 Census.
Supervisor Ryan Kelley, who was on scene, represents Niland and other communities of the north end on the county board.
Damon Harmon contributed information to this report.