NILAND — The growl of chainsaws downing charred trees and the thud of heavy machinery clearing piles of debris where homes once stood could be heard throughout Niland during the second day of a massive clean-up effort by the county of Imperial.
After a June 28 brush fire, spread by sustained high winds, destroyed much of the township and left one person dead and more than 40 families displaced and more than 40 structures in ruins, the work to clear an estimated 7,500 tons of ash and debris started Aug. 3.
Among the many agencies brought together were crews from Team Rubicon, a nonprofit, military veteran-led disaster response team based in Los Angeles, which had 20 volunteers in Niland on Aug. 4 and would see more than 100 more volunteers cycle in over the course of the three-week job, Team Rubicon Disaster Response supervisor Kevin Kothlow said.
“We are a veteran-based disaster response group that originally started in 2010 responding to the Haiti earthquake,” Kothlow explained. “Since then, we keep growing and we try to help areas that have been impacted like Niland.”
Team Rubicon is working with the California Office of Emergency Services to help residents recover from the fire and get families back in their homes, Kothlow said.
“We are assisting Cal OES (and the county) in clearing all of the burn debris, cement, and foundations. We are clearing out two to three inches of soil to get all the contaminants out. The homeowners can come back, and Cal OES is going to bring in temporary trailers until residents can rebuild,” said a Team Rubicon heavy-machine operator who identified himself only as “Pops.”
Kothlow added the county is looking into getting mobile homes as a long-term solution for fire victims, as well.
Team Rubicon volunteer Andrew MacVey used a chainsaw to cut down trees blocking the entrance to one condemned residence.
“We started clearing trees and other debris yesterday to make a path for the loaders and excavators to enter the properties,” said MacVey, who came from Los Angeles to volunteer with Team Rubicon.
“The county used two local vendors to sweep through all the properties and pick out everything that is defined by law as hazardous waste and do grid soil-testing to check for asbestos or other harmful chemicals,” said Kothlow, adding that when identified, hazardous waste must be cleared from the site before Team Rubicon volunteers can begin their work.
Kothlow said he expects all 41 burn sites in Niland will be clean at the end of his organization’s three-week mission.
Team Rubicon set up 25 beds for volunteers in the Grace Smith Elementary gymnasium. The volunteers will work in shifts ranging from five to seven days. A map of Niland was prominently displayed on a wall in the gymnasium noting the 41 properties volunteers plan to clean, including some which have already been identified to have asbestos.
When asked how his team is acclimating to August in Niland, Kothlow said members of his team hail from all parts of the country.
“Volunteers who come from desert climates like Arizona and Southern California are having an easier time than those who come from cooler climates,” Kothlow said.
Morgan Williams has lived in Niland since 1983, and although he did not lose his home in the fire, he lost eight uninsured vehicles and a trailer.
“The county is doing a good job cleaning up. I understand it will take a little time and the volunteers have to work in the heat,” Williams said.
Williams said he was grateful he saved his suits during the fire, so he could still wear proper attire when attending church.
Team Rubicon responds to disasters all over the country. During the pandemic, the nonprofit was helping during the quarantine by manning food banks and COVID-19-testing sites. In June, the Team Rubicon completed a fire-mitigation project in Idyllwild, Kothlow said.
Team Rubicon’s national operation at Grand Prairie, Texas, monitors and responds to hurricanes. The organization is both volunteer- and donation-based and does not charge for its services. Those interested in learning more about the Team Rubicon Disaster response can visit www.teamrubiconusa.org.
Supervisors Approve Niland-Related Decisions
More than $1 million in debris removal and housing help for the Niland fire victims was approved at the Aug. 4 Imperial County Board of Supervisors meeting.
Republic Services/Allied Waste is removing an estimated 7,500 tons of ash and debris from the Niland fire site after the supervisors ratified a $600,000 agreement with the waste-management company.
In the second half of July, fire debris clean-up began with asbestos and household hazardous waste identification and removal. The second phase of the Niland fire clean-up is the solid waste debris removal and disposal stage, according to Jeff Lamoure, deputy director of environmental health for Imperial County.
The Niland site has an estimated 7,500 tons of structural ash and debris that needs to be removed from 41 parcels, Lamoure said. However, that is a conservative estimate based on state wildfire disaster debris removal data.
The Cal OES estimates the Niland fire clean-up will cost about $2.8 million, according to a letter to the Board of Supervisors from Public Health Director Janette Angulo. The county is pursuing two paths to mitigate the fiscal impact, including grant funding opportunities and reimbursement of up to 75 percent of costs through the California Disaster Assistance Act. The second source of reimbursement is conditioned on the governor declaring a state of emergency for the fire.
The supervisors also voted to utilize $350,000 from fiscal 2018-2019 state Community Development Block Grants to help with clean-up and housing for those displaced by the fire. The original grant was for a housing rehabilitation program in Niland.
“With that program we would be able to do two or three housing rehabilitation programs, which is basically to replace a house with another one to meet the standards and to assist the family,” said Esperanza Colio-Warren, deputy county executive officer.
“In light of the Niland fire, we looked into other options to see what is the best option to assist the community. Working with the state, they are allowing us to use $55,000 for temporary assistance of the residents affected by the fire and also to assist with the trash containers and the disposal of that debris,” Colio-Warren explained.
“…We’re not moving or taking money away from any community,” she added. “This is remaining in the same community, and it’s going to help more families than the original application.”
The board voted 4-0 to add temporary assistance and disposal costs to the original $350,000 grant resolution. Supervisor Raymond Castillo left the meeting before the vote.
In its final action Aug. 4 related to the Niland fire, the board approved another $100,000 from the public benefit program to be utilized toward emergency housing, vouchers, debris removal and similar projects for the township of Niland.
This story is featured in the Aug 6, 2020 e-Edition.