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The Central Valley News Collaborative includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, Valley Public Radio and Radio Bilingüe. The project was announced in late 2020 and began its work in 2021 with the Collaborative's reporters shining a light on how the Central Valley’s communities of color have been disproportionately impacted, physically and financially, by COVID-19. The Collaborative is now exploring how the drought and climate change could reshape the valley, and the lives of the people who work in the agriculture industry. The Collaborative is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation, with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Eastern Tulare County Residents Are Struggling After a Fire Burned Down Immigrant-Owned Businesses

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Nadia Lopez
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Fresno Bee
Gregorio Rodriguez shows where his Mexican bakery store, La Potosina, was located before it burned down in Poplar, CA.

Ezize Hassan walks through the remains of his trailer home and the minimart that his family has owned for more than 50 years in the Tulare County community of Poplar. As he surveys the destruction, he recalls that on July 9, a power line running through a tree in between his property and his neighbors’ sparked.

 

“It caught fire on this tree, the first tree,” he says pointing to the pine trees that towered over the ashy remains. “It flamed up from up top; starting going down. Once it hit the floor, the CVA, their garage caught on fire.” 

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Credit Nadia Lopez / Fresno Bee
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Fresno Bee
Ezize Hassan, 30, points to the tree that Poplar, CA residents said ignited the fire.

The CVA is The Central Valley Empowerment Alliance. It is a community based organization that was supposed to hold a youth vaccination event that day, according to Executive Director Mari Perez-Ruiz. No kids were injured but the supplies intended for them were destroyed. 

“We expected over 400 students to come from all over the area,” she says. “We had backpacks filled with supplies, lunch boxes, and over $100,000 of clothing from Forever 21.” 

While the CVA’s garage caught on fire, the only structural damage was on the roof. Still, she says the items inside the garage including six quinceañera dresses, canned food, and school supplies are unsalvageable. 

“I recognize in the midst of this that we are one of the luckier ones,” Perez-Ruiz says.  

But others weren’t so lucky. The Porterville Fire Department said the cause of the blaze is still under investigation. What residents know for sure is that within 30 minutes, the fire had destroyed two trailer homes and damaged another house. It also burned Adam’s Market, the minimart that was once home to four immigrant-owned businesses. They were the lifeline for people living in the community and surrounding areas, according to Perez-Ruiz.  

“People come from far to shop, to cash their checks, to get their hair done, to transfer money to their families,” she says. Many residents have families in Mexico, Central America, and Yemen, she explains.

Perez-Ruiz says most of Poplar’s approximately 2,200 residents  are undocumented and low-income. Now, the only business left in their community is another small grocery store.   

“Even though we are in the Central Valley, we provide food for the world, we find ourselves in a food desert,” she says. “And when one of our two grocery stores, the oldest one in town, becomes ashes, it has an impact that is beyond Poplar.”

Fire Destroys Four Immigrant Owned Businesses

Five days after the fire, evidence of its destruction is everywhere. A couch inside one of the trailers is burned down to its springs. Half burnt backpacks are piled up near the CVA building. And the local business owners who gathered in the CVA say they are still processing the loss. 

Veronica Quiñonez owned the hair salon in the building for 4 years. She says she was washing a client's hair when someone ran into her salon and told her the building had caught on fire. 

“We didn’t have time to think or try to take anything with us,” she says in Spanish. “In five minutes, when I least expected it, I lost everything.”  

And with four kids and a pandemic that shut down her business for months, she says she couldn’t afford insurance. Now, she’s not sure how she will recover. 

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Credit Nadia Lopez / Fresno Bee
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Fresno Bee
Gregorio Rodriguez stands in front of the charred remains of his Mexican Bakery, La Potosina.

“Everything burned,” she says. “I don’t have scissors or even a place to work.” 

She’s not the only one. Gregorio Rodriguez and his wife had owned La Potosina, a panadaria or bakery, for two years. He says it was their dream to open up their own bakery. They saved every penny they could for nearly 10 years.

“Like Vero said, you lose everything, all the years of hard work, early mornings, late nights,” he says in Spanish. “And suddenly it’s gone.” 

And without insurance to cover the damages, he says he’s not sure what the future holds. 

“We lived off our day to day sales,” he says.  

The Rodriguez family will need to figure out how they’re going to pay for next month's bills. 

12 People Displaced By The Fire 

Cesar Lionel Cruz Chavez, who rented a room next door to Adam’s Market, needs to find immediate housing.

“Right now we’re not sleeping there,” he says in Spanish. We’re sleeping in our cars.”

Chavez says he works the night shift at a dairy farm three minutes away. That’s where he showers. He then heads to his car to sleep in the record breaking heat. 

“I waste more gas, but I turn on the air conditioning and, well, there I am struggling,” he says.  

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Credit Nadia Lopez / Fresno Bee
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Fresno Bee
Ash, charred wood and debris are all that’s left from Poplar, CA’s only grocery store, Adam's Market.

Mari Perez-Ruiz says the Red Cross offered the displaced people $500 vouchers for hotels, but that only covered about three nights in the area. And she says the community is facing a housing crisis, making it more difficult for Cesar and the other 11 displaced people to find a place to live. 

“The only option for many will be to move out of the community and that's displacement,” she says.  

That’s why she says she’s reached out to state senator Melissa Hurtado and County Supervisor Dennis Thompson for help. Senator Hurtado says she will do what she can to connect the community with resources. In the meantime, Perez-Ruiz says the community will focus on rebuilding. 

They’ve also created a GoFundMe to help the families affected by the fire. 

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.
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