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Tiny desert town pummeled by wildfire as it battles coronavirus

by Stephanie Lai, Los Angeles Times |

NILAND, Calif. – For Genesis Palta, the pandemic had already meant a chain reaction of adjustments.

The stay-at-home order forced her mother to stop selling Mexican desserts to her neighbors, which cut into the family’s meager income. Her father worried about catching the coronavirus and passing it on to his family. But they depended on the $500 in cash he was paid each week, so he toiled 13-hour shifts in the vast broccoli and cauliflower fields.

To help make ends meet, Palta, 20, used part of her financial aid for Imperial Valley College to buy toilet paper and masks online when supplies ran short in local markets. “We even started limiting the number of times we used the bathroom to save on toilet paper,” she said. “I’d constantly think, ‘Will we have enough to last the month?’”

But such hardship did not prepare Palta for the latest calamity.

She heard a shriek of terror Sunday. Then she saw her 15-year-old sister, Emily, fighting flames that towered over her. The Paltas’ home was one of 40 that would burn down that evening. One person was killed by the blaze.

The Niland fire broke out as COVID-19 cases were surging dramatically in Imperial County, forcing the transfer of patients to hospitals in counties already strapped for supplies and space. It also hit a place that was already down.

In this town in the southeastern corner of California, the average annual salary is $19,800 and 57 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Unemployment in Imperial County is among the worst in the state.

Rows of tightly packed houses in the town of about 1,000 were decimated. Entire blocks were wiped out.

“The fire jumped from house to house,” said Sherry Fleischer, who’d lived in Niland for 32 years. “None of us have insurance on our homes. We’re mostly retired people living in mobile homes.”

As the fire raged, over 100 residents evacuated to a Red Cross station at Calipatria High School, where they were directed to stay in their vehicles and screened for the coronavirus, said Imperial County’s public information officer, Linsey Dale. Those who tested positive were sent to an isolated location, while others took refuge in hotel rooms and received meals and food vouchers.

Fleischer, who lost her home in the fire, spent two nights in a motel before moving into her mother’s trailer in Niland.

Even though she was concerned about catching COVID-19, Fleischer said, the anguish she felt as she approached her collapsed home outweighed fears of the pandemic. She could not bear walking near the scorched porch steps. She averted her eyes, which welled with tears, from the front door. Inside lay the charred remains of her 33 cats.

Two nights before, as the fire bore down on her home from both sides of the road, she had evacuated with her daughter leaving their chicken coop and her beloved cats behind.

Alvaro Baltierra, 24, and his 60-year-old mother, Ana Valenzuela, also returned Tuesday to start cleaning up the charred remains of their home.

“Everything happened too fast,” Baltierra said. “The feeling is something beyond horrible.”

He was able to save two cars and planned to stay with his mother at his brother’s home across town. He and Valenzuela hope to purchase a trailer in the near future to replace their lost home. Until then, they will continue working in the fields.