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Estimated 40 Homes Burn As Brushfire Tears Through Small SoCal Town

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At about 6:30 last night, a brush fire ignited out in the desert near the southeastern end of the Salton Sea. Because of strong dry winds, it wasn't long before the flames traveled half a mile west, jumped Highway 111, and landed in Niland -- a small town with a patchwork of mobile homes and trailers surrounded by ready-to-burn brush.

There were calls to evacuate the entire town as 30 mph gusts made it difficult for firefighters to get a handle on the blaze. Reinforcements from Cal Fire in San Diego were called in to help the Imperial County firefighters.

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One person was killed, an estimated 40 homes were destroyed, and 130 people were displaced, though the numbers are still being tallied.

A tragedy anywhere, but even more so in Niland, where an estimated 57 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

"I don't see it being rebuilt. For my family at least. Which is kind of pretty heavy for me to say," said Pastor Elijah Bañaga, whose family members lost two homes in the fire. He lives in nearby Calipatria, but has deep ties to the Niland community.

He said his family has lived there since the 1920s, when his grandparents emigrated from the Philippines to work in the agricultural industry.

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"My aunties and my uncles, they were part of the generation that lived there for a long time," Bañaga said. "They were there when the economy was booming in Niland. There were banks and packing sheds, and agriculture was booming."

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Now, it's a low income part of Imperial Valley with people struggling to get by.

"It's like pure trailers all throughout the city. A lot of the city has been deserted and people have left their homes. It's almost like a ghost town. It's pretty impoverished," Bañaga said.

The impact to the town, he said, will put further strain on those living there. And he fears that the strong sense of community that he's always felt in Niland, will diminish if people fail to recover post-disaster.

For now, those who have been displaced are either staying with family and friends, like the Bañagas, or in hotel rooms paid for by the Red Cross.

The long-term plan for recovery is unclear and will take some time to pan out.

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According to Linsey Dale, public information officer with Imperial County, a local assistance center is being set up so that residents can meet with both government and nonprofit agencies that might be able to help them.