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Blaze may hasten closure of park

The Indian-owned facility near Thermal is unsafe, authorities say. But many farmworkers would need to find new homes if it's shut down.

May 16, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

THERMAL, CALIF. — A fire that destroyed six trailers and left eight families homeless Monday could be the beginning of the end of Duroville, a notorious, ramshackle trailer park housing 4,000 people on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation in Riverside County.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs said Tuesday that it planned to give park owner Harvey Duro 90 days to bring the place up to federal fire codes or it will ask the courts to shut it down.

"This should be a wake-up call," said James Fletcher, superintendent of the Southern California Agency of the BIA, who met with Duro on Tuesday. "We have given him enough chances. If we continue to give him additional chances I think someone might be hurt, and I don't want that on my conscience."

The park owner will be ordered to create proper separation between the more than 300 densely packed trailers, increase road clearance for firefighters and upgrade the water supply and electrical system.

Fletcher thinks it unlikely much or any of this will be done in time.

"We would like to give him as short a time as possible to come into compliance because he has known about the problems for some time," he said. "It's real scary when you have a fire like that."

Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez tribe, did not return calls seeking comment.

On Monday, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection arrested Guadalupe Mena Deanda, 51, on suspicion of arson. She is being held on $50,000 bail at the Indio jail. Deanda lived in the park, but a motive for the alleged arson is unknown, fire officials said.

Firefighters said it was fortunate the flames were confined to the northern edge of the sprawling park rather than in the middle and that winds were blowing away from the rest of the community.

"It could have easily gotten out of hand," said Capt. Fernando Herrera of the Riverside County Fire Department. "You have all of these trailers together with no defensible space between them. The density of the homes, the fact that many are deteriorating and the radiant heat can make a fire move very rapidly."

The water pressure at the park is low and the supply inadequate to fight a big fire, Herrera said. Water tenders had to be brought in, he said.

"It is a dangerous situation; the place is a fire risk," he said. "But it's on the reservation, so we have no authority."

The Desert Mobile Home Park, commonly referred to as Duroville, took shape in the late 1990s when Riverside County began a crackdown on illegal trailer parks. Fearing eviction, many fled onto Indian land where county building, safety and hygiene codes didn't apply.

There are now five parks on the reservation, with Duroville the biggest, poorest and most squalid. It stands in sharp contrast to the golf courses and country clubs in the desert's nearby resort communities.

After pressure from the BIA in 2003, Duro agreed to make basic repairs to water, sewer and electricity inside the 40-acre park, near Avenue 66, about two miles west of Highway 86.

He was given 18 months to complete the job, but the federal government said he never did.

The BIA also ordered him to issue government-approved leases to tenants, who say he hasn't.

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency cited him for violations of water and sewage standards. The park sits alongside the biggest illegal dump in California, and sections of Duroville have tested positive for the carcinogen dioxin. The dump, also on the reservation and owned by tribal member Kim Lawson, was shut last year but remains toxic, the EPA says.

BIA Natural Resources Officer Lisa Northrop said she told Duro several times about the need for an emergency evacuation plan but said he had yet to create one.

Park residents are largely low-wage farmworkers. Most were in the fields when they saw smoke pouring from Duroville. About 120 trailers were evacuated, and it took 30 firefighters about two hours to beat back the flames.

It wasn't quick enough to save Juan Ochoa's home, which was reduced to a heap of ash. His car was torched, his kids' toys incinerated.

"I have no pictures, no clothes, no toys for the kids anymore," Ochoa, 38, said as he wandered the wreckage Tuesday. "I don't know what I will do."

He shared the trailer with his wife and six children. They spent the night at the Desert Mirage High School gymnasium in Thermal in a shelter set up by the Red Cross.

The Red Cross said it aided 22 adults and 15 children. It was working on finding longer-term housing for those who lost their homes.

"This kind of fire is everyone's nightmare," said Sister Gabriella Williams, a community outreach worker who was in the park when the fire erupted. "I said, 'Oh please, God, get the children out of there, get the people out of there.' It was chaotic.''

Flames scorched the powder-blue trailer belonging to Maria de Jesus Rafael Elias, 38. The heat broke her windows. Her home survived but she didn't feel lucky, just enormously sad.

"When I saw the flames from the fields I thought my house was burned, but thanks be to God it didn't," she said tearfully. "But I feel so hopeless for the other people. I am so afraid it will happen again."

The BIA hopes it won't happen again but it faces the same dilemma all who have wanted so badly to close the park have faced: what to do with those who can't afford more than $400 a month rent.

"That's the scary part," Fletcher said. "I'm concerned about those folks because I don't know where they'll go."

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