NILAND — Almost 13 months after the five-alarm fire in Niland scorched 38 buildings down on June 28, 2020, and displaced over 100 people, some families are happy to have picked up the pieces and moved on in the last year, while others still wait for a more permanent resolution.

Niland Fire

A photo shows the blaze that tore through the township of Niland, June 28, 2020, in Niland.

Yet amid the tragedy, Imperial County’s generous donors and others from areas far and wide came together with donations in support of those families, sources said.

For Stephanie Galindo, her fiancé Miguel Araujo, and their seven children between the ages of 3- and 14-years old, being displaced by the fire took a lot of adjustment after losing their home in Niland.

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The Araujo-Galindo family smile for a picture on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 2020.

The family moved to Niland from Brawley less than a year before the June 28 fire. They had only lived on their Niland property, on the 400 block of 4th Street, for about nine months before the fire tore down the home where they started a rent-to-own agreement. They lost all of their possessions in the blaze.

“It just spread so fast,” she said. “When we noticed it spreading, I tried calling my older kids who were down the street at their friend’s house, and I couldn’t get ahold of them for some reason. The next thing you know the Sheriff’s (officer) was knocking on the door telling everyone to evacuate.”

The mother of seven said the family was only able to get out of their home with everyone in the family accounted for, their medicines, the clothes they were wearing, and their pets in tow.

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The Felix family caravan evacuates Niland on their way to stay with family in Calipatria, June 28, in Niland.

All of the family’s legal identification including ID cards and birth certificates burned up in the flames, Araujo said.

“Immediately after the fire, I got everyone in the car, we drove to my aunt’s house in Brawley, and we were trying to figure out what was going on,” the father said.

“It was honestly something that was like straight out of a movie for the kids,” Araujo said. “The kids are traumatized of fire still. I can’t barbeque without the kids or Stephanie freaking out.”

“It’s just an indescribable moment for all of them,” he said. “The kids had just had birthdays, so they lost all their birthday presents. It was a traumatic experience for the kids.”

“It was terrifying to see on Facebook Live what was happening to this town that I grew up in. They did a 360 view, and it was everywhere,” said Jacqueline Riddell, head of Calipatria-based Best S.T.E.P. Forward, one of the local nonprofits who gathered donations and delivered them to the families affected by the Niland fire.

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Angel Felix looks over the continually burning fire on Third Street as he drives by, June 29, 2020, in Niland.

by they could stay with were directed to the Erickson Gym and Calipatria High School, 8 miles away from the Niland township.

“Typical disaster response wasn’t possible because of COVID,” Riddell said. “Some families couldn’t leave their car because of COVID, and some families are being dropped off because they didn’t even have cars.”

The American Red Cross helped families get set up with temporary housing through hotel vouchers. By about 5 a.m. the following morning, all the families were settled into local hotels, Riddell said.

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A family gets help at the Local Assessment Center at the Calipatria High School auditorium in Calipatria.

“I didn’t start thinking about what are the challenges, I started thinking about what the solutions are, that’s my way of thinking,” said County of Imperial Deputy CEO Esperanza Colio.

That same day, the County established a Local Assessment Center (LAC) with help from the Calipatria Unified School District at the school’s gymnasium in Calipatria, which showed various County partnering agencies coming together for the official help and assessment site.

“The assessment was important because (at the LAC) we were able to identify exactly what are the needs of each family,” she said. “And then we were able to secure donations from different locations.”

Businesses such as Walmart in Brawley, Old Navy in Calexico, and the San Diego Humane Society sent in donations of clothes, essential items, and monetary aid, respectively, to help Niland. Various other families, individuals, and other businesses kept the donations pouring into the nonprofits for the families.

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Calipatria resident, formerly of Niland, Jacqueline Riddell sits in the middle of a large pile of donations for the displaced Niland Fire families at Best S.T.E.P. Forward, June 30 2020, in Calipatria.

“We had mountains of brand-new items … they almost reached the ceiling … and what we did because it became so much is we started supplying Niland safe zones with items,” Riddell said. “We supplied the Chambers and a church in Niland that opened its doors. We raised a total of about $12,000 in donations, cash-money donations that came in.”

“We had our office and our overflow filled, so we told them to bring their trailers and take what they need,” she said. “We kept it very private, one family at a time.”

The estimated total loss was $3.6 million in damages, including properties ranging from $41,000 to $144,000, but excluding infrastructure damage to things like plumbing and electrical systems, as previously reported in this newspaper. The average total property loss was $50,000.

Some of the nonprofits worked within the LAC structure, and others like Best S.T.E.P. worked independently but in partnership with other local nonprofits, businesses, and residents.

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Love’s volunteers load up a vehicle to take donations to families displaced by the Niland fire, June 30, 2020, in Westmorland.

“(Red Cross) placed us in a motel and we were there,” Araujo said. “We were there for about a month,” Galindo said. “It was three beds between the nine of us. We made it work.”

“I was one of the ones that kind of kept in contact with the families,” said Niland fire survivor Cristina Felix, a friend of Riddell’s who keeps in contact with Galindo and family as the Cheer Coordinator for Grace Smith Elementary School in Niland.

Though Felix and her family live in Niland, they were a family that did not lose their home in the fire thanks to the swift work of fire crews.

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Unidentified Walmart employees pose for a photo after loading up items purchased by Best S.T.E.P. Forward to donate to families affected by the Niland Fire, July 4, 2020, at Walmart in Brawley.

The Felix family also evacuated what their other family members affectionately call “The Niland Zoo,” as their various pets — including two dogs, two birds, two geckos, one rabbit, and one Guinea pig — made it out safely with the Felix family as they caravanned from Niland to stay with family in Calipatria. Felix’s 14 chickens were not so lucky.

“The next day was when we saw how many people really did lose their homes,” Felix said.

Though Felix did not lose her home, she said she felt for those who did, prompting her to help her friend “Jackie” and Best S.T.E.P. in connecting Niland families directly with donated items.

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A look in the Best S.T.E.P. Forward pantry after organizing various donations for the Niland Fire victims.

“It was scary, but I masked up and with my kids in tow and a team of maybe four people, we opened up our doors and we started accepting items in good condition,” Riddell said.

Best S.T.E.P. had to close donations after three days of a constant influx of donations for the Niland families, utilizing volunteers from AmeriCorps Borderlands Imperial Valley to organize the various items.

“Even as the donations were coming in, we had victims of the fire come in asking for help,” Riddell said. “It was heartbreaking and emotional.”

Deputy CEO Esperanza Colio agreed.

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Volunteers with Forgotten Angels put together baskets of personal hygiene products for Niland Fire victims, June 30, 2020, in Niland.

“It’s a sad experience in the sense that families lost everything, lost their memories through old photos, and they were feeling very depressed,” she said, “so all we can do as a County is just give them some hope and try to do our best to secure funding for them. It’s everybody’s effort.”

The County secured 33 temporary travel trailers from the State for emergency housing for the families as the hotel vouchers began to expire about a month later. Some were granted extended hotel stays.

As the year progressed, other Niland fire victims moved out of the trailers and in with family across Imperial County, with some moving out of the County altogether.

What was supposed to be only a temporary, three-month stay in those trailers has been about a year for the displaced Niland residents as of July.

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The travel trailers for temporary housing for the displaced Niland fire families sit in a lot at Imperial Valley College. The trailers arrived in full, July 24, 2020, in Imperial.

On June 22, 2021, the County Board of Supervisors approved donating the trailers to the families rather than continuing them as loaned property. As of June 24, 2021, 13 of the 33 displaced families continue living in the travel trailers.

Galindo said a worker from an Imperial Valley Regional Occupational Program project helped their family of nine find more permanent housing in El Centro, helping them by paying a portion of their rent for the first few months in the new residence.

“We’ve just been here in the new house that we’re renting … adjusting here,” she said. “We started up a little candy business here in the Valley selling hot candies.”

The Araujo-Galindo family said they are grateful to all the help they received from family, friends, nonprofit donations, and the kindness of strangers which helped them get back on their feet in the past year.

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The Araujo-Galindo family smile for their Thanksgiving family portrait photo, November 25, 2020, at their new home in El Centro.

Family members and the San Diego Regional Center each helped the family by starting two separate GoFundMe fundraisers, respectively, raising approximately $4,600 collectively for the large, displaced family. The Araujo-Galindos received services from the San Diego Regional Center as one of their children has special needs.

Though he lost his former-employee work pickup truck in the fire, Araujo said the GoFundMe donations helped him fix a car they saved from the flames.

“We are really grateful and fortunate that they were able to help us,” Galindo said. “A lot of people we didn’t know would bring us donations too.”

Colio also noticed the ample generosity, saying in addition to staying vigilant about following COVID-19 protocols throughout the fire disaster, one of the biggest and most positive lessons the County learned from the Niland Fire was “we are a community that works together.”

She said nonprofits from Imperial County, as well as San Diego and Riverside counties, donated by the truckload for the families.

“I cannot say (helping the families) was the County’s accomplishment, it was the community’s accomplishment,” Colio said. “Everybody came together.”

After the months of cleanup and abatement ceased in 2020, Colio said 2021 shows empty lots in the area where the fire touched; empty lots whose property lines must be redrawn before more permanent housing help can continue for the families.

“Because everything was destroyed completely, we have a piece of land all alone and we don’t know where each one of the properties start and end,” Colio said, “so it’s important we create those property lines again legally.”

Colio said the County recently received a $25,000 donation to be used for the redrawing of the 43 property lines, but the County will need the permission and help from the families to do so since most of the lots are their private property.

“As long as they’re income eligible, we will be able to replace some of the houses that were lost,” Colio said, “but we need to know where some of them are located. We want to replace those houses, but they need to help us.”

“Because everything was destroyed completely, we have a piece of land all alone and we don’t know where each one of the properties start and end,” Colio said, “so it’s important we create those property lines again legally.”

On May 4, 2021, the County BOS approved the submittal of a Colonias Allocation grant for more than $4.4 million to rebuild some residences affected by the fire. The County is still waiting to see if it will be awarded the funds.

Colio said the County recently received a $25,000 donation to be used for the redrawing of the 43 property lines, but the County will need the permission and help from the families to do so since most of the lots are their private property.

“As soon as we get the funding that will be available from this $25,000 donation from the San Diego Fire Foundation, we are going to call (the families) and say, ‘Whoever owns a property, we’re going to start this process,’” she said.

“As long as they’re income eligible, we will be able to replace some of the houses that were lost,” Colio said, “but we need to know where some of them are located. We want to replace those houses, but they need to help us.”

Colio said the County will try to stretch the donation as much as possible to finish the property lines re-discovery project.

After lines are redrawn, if the funding is awarded from the State, Colio said there will be two options. The first would be to replace the homes for the property owners. The second would be connecting the families who were renting with an experienced nonprofit who would be willing to take the lead on rehousing them.

The idea, Colio said, is to get various nonprofit agencies to possibly buy the land area which previously housed the apartment complexes destroyed by the fire and create an RV park specifically for the displaced Niland families, “so all those that were renting before can go and live in that area.”

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R to: Husband and wife, Cristina and Angel Felix, smile with their newborn baby girl, Clarissa Mariana Felix, in their living room just a few days after bringing her home from the hospital, July 1, 2021, in Niland.

Colio said three nonprofits are currently interested in spearheading this future project to rehouse the former Niland renters.

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L to R: Siblings Mickey, 3, and Alina Araujo, 7, smile as they stay optimistic even after losing their home, at their temporary residence at the Calipatria Inn, July 1, 2020, in Calipatria.

Even with all the uncertainty, some are still pulling the positives out of a serious situation.

“We were already a tight community, but the fires brought us way closer together, in my opinion,” Felix said. “It was hard to see a lot of our people lose their homes but the positive from it was that it helped us all come together.”

“We’re doing good,” Galindo said. “The kids are doing really well in school and my daughter has been getting honor roll every semester.”

“When all of this was happening, my kids were always grateful and optimistic about everything,” the mother said, “and I’m glad they were. They kind of gave me the strength to stay strong through everything.”

“As a family we learned just to be grateful for what we have,” she said.