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Permanent Solutions Still Being Sought for Niland Fire Victims as County Hears Their Concerns

(UPDATE 6 p.m. July 28: Additional information on the Niland fire came from county officials July 28, a day after a town hall meeting was held in Calipatria to address the concerns of displaced families. New information included an update on the person killed in the fire.)

Victims of the June 28 Niland fire that left one person dead and 43 families displaced met with Imperial County officials during a town hall meeting July 27 to discuss when or if they would receive replacement homes.

About 30 families attended the meeting inside the old Calipatria High School gymnasium during which county officials attempted to explain as much as possible about what they were doing to help the fire victims, said Deputy County Executive Officer Esperanza Colio Warren after the meeting. Warren was the meeting organizer.

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An Imperial County vehicle is shown in the foreground, with the old Calipatria High School gym in the background. The gym was the site of a town hall meeting July 27 dedicated to updating victims of the June 28 Niland fire about replacing their homes with trailers. JAYSON BARNISKE PHOTO

District 4 Supervisor Ryan Kelley, whose district includes Niland, on July 28 told the public the discussion with the families was an “unpleasant conversation,” implying some of the information was difficult to deliver and some of the concerns were difficult to hear.

He said the meeting was for the victims of the fire, not members of the public to come to debate or come to report grievances with the county.

Residents were told July 27 that unless the state issues an emergency declaration over the fire that swept through much of the township and destroyed housing for some 150 people, the county would not be able to provide mobile homes to the victims as a permanent solution to their emergency housing needs, Warren said.

“There has been a local emergency declared but this has not happened at the state level yet. This is what has been keeping the doors closed,” she explained. “It is up to this state to make the declaration and provide the funding so that we can approve the plan to purchase mobile homes as a long-term solution to victims of the fire.”

“If we do not get an emergency declared at the state level, it leaves us in a difficult position,” Warren said.

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Imperial County Fire Chief Alfredo Estrada told a reporter July 28 that to his understanding the county does not meet the qualifications to get a declaration of emergency from the state on the Niland fire. He said he would get back to the Chronicle with the requirements needed to make that declaration.

“Usually it has to be something outside our ability and resources to meet the need. We are getting the assistance in other ways,” Kelley said.

Kelley and District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar said a request at the state level that would grant Imperial County access to funding to help Niland fire victims through the Small Business Administration was approved July 28, it was learned late in the day.

Low-interest federal disaster loans are available to businesses and residents affected by the Niland fire, according to an U.S. SBA email to county officials. No other information was immediately available.

County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr. reported at the July 28 Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting in the morning that some 33 travel trailers parked at Imperial Valley College have been dedicated for the homeless, and they would be utilized as transitional shelter for the Niland fire victims.

“We have established the Del Yermo RV Park on 263 E. Alamo Road in Calipatria as the location where we will place 28 trailers to meet the mid-term housing needs of residents displaced by the fire,” Warren said, adding there would be other temporary trailers located at sites in Brawley and Niland.

“The vast majority, if not all of the people displaced by the fire, want to stay in Niland and would prefer to not even temporarily be housed outside of Niland,” Warren said.

Rouhotas added that county officials have reached out to all the Valley’s cities to find locations for trailers. This number is over and above the 10 trailers the county has for COVID-positive homeless patients, he noted.

At the Calipatria meeting, fire victims were asked not to attempt to clean up their properties to prevent exposing contaminants, including asbestos, and were asked to sign documents allowing the county to enter their property and perform the cleanup, Warren said.

Rouhotas added July 28 that five properties were found to have asbestos, and four of those sites had already been cleaned up; a fifth site was being cleared July 28.

Board Votes 4-0 to Utilize $100,000 Funds for Niland
A sign posted by the Imperial County building department condemns one of the 30-plus destroyed homes in Niland the morning of June 29, after a fire swept through much of the community June 28, leaving one dead, more than 150 people displaced and 40-plus families without homes. | CORISSA IBARRA PHOTO

He added that on Aug. 3 three crews will begin the process of removing debris from the property sites.

A major concern expressed by meeting attendees was that households with disabled family members would be unable to navigate the stairs entering temporary travel trailers or mobile homes, Warren added.

“To meet the needs of those disabled victims of the fire, we will continue to give them rental vouchers and work with the (Imperial Valley) Housing Authority to provide an ultimate solution,” Warren said.

Francisco Valdez lost his house in Niland during the fire and attended the meeting with three family members. He and his family are staying at the Calipatria Inn thanks to vouchers provided by the county.

“We got a lot of help from the county. They are saying we will get a travel trailer for now and even a mobile home in the future,” Valdez said, as he left meeting.

Valdez said he had liability insurance on his home, which only allowed him to repay the mortgage, leaving him in the clear with his home loan but with little more than an empty lot to live on. When asked about the possibility of replacing his house with a mobile home, Valdez gave an optimistic response.

“A mobile home will not be as good as my house was, but it is better than what we have now,” Valdez said.

Ron Likens and his wife are senior citizens and were assisted to their vehicle by a (county) Fire Department official when leaving the meeting about an hour before it ended.

“There were various county officials represented at the meeting and they told us when the cleaning would take place,” said Ron Likens, who was unable to make out the specific dates mentioned by officials because of his hearing difficulties.

“I couldn’t hear very well in the meeting because my hearing aids burned up in the fire. My wife uses a walker, so we decided to leave early,” Likens said.

Calipatria-Niland Family Resource Center director-coordinator Maria Nava was a leader in the donation effort to assist Niland’s fire victims. She said, “I think the meeting was great and very informative. The county has been very informative to bring us up to date on the assistance that is available for those displaced by the fire.”

Francis Wilburtson lost her trailer in Niland in the fire and attended the meeting to stay informed about her resources.

“They were talking about travel trailers and had us sign a lot of papers. There was lots of noisiness in there, but I appreciate the help coming in from the county,” Wilburtson said. “We are not picky. People in Niland will take all the help we can get.”

Rouhotas added July 28 that efforts to help the fire victims is “being fast-tracked in a way I didn’t think possible.”

Wilburtson suggested that in lieu of donating goods, Valley residents who are able to assist Niland’s displaced fire victims could donate to a cash fund to be used in assisting purchasing the travel trailers.

There was no information immediately available on the cause of the June 28 fire or any further information on the deceased fire victim by deadline. Estrada said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.

As for the person who died in the fire, the Imperial County’s Coroner’s Office is working the case, Estrada said. A reporter left a message for a coroner investigator in charge of the case late July 28 but did not immediately receive a return call.

Still, Estrada and Kelley confirmed July 28 there is no identification on the deceased. In fact, Kelley said it wasn’t known who the deceased person is, because as far as he has heard, everyone in Niland was accounted for in the fire.

The remains of a fire victim were found while county officials were searching the fire scene June 29.

“I have talked to people in the community and they don’t know anyone in the community who is missing. It could have been somebody who was passing through. As far as I know no further information has been identified on the record,” Kelley explained.

Photo of Niland fire crowdsourced from Twitter