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Huge fire in South Los Angeles leaves residents homeless for the holidays

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A small, unburned section of the living room under a collapsed roof is all that remains of Omar Hernandez’s home after a massive fire gutted his apartment building in South Los Angeles this week. Pink insulation and ceiling lights hang from above as he tiptoes around shards of glass and gravel in slippers.

Hernandez, 53, and his wife and cousin spend the night at a friend’s apartment in Glendale, but return to what’s left of the house each day to collect their belongings. The plan is to move everything out by Monday as they search for a new home and answers.

Before dawn Tuesday, flames swept through a building under construction in the 1500 block of East Vernon Avenue in the working-class Central-Alameda neighborhood. Burning hot and fast through the exposed wood of the building’s frame, the fire quickly spread to neighboring homes, injuring three people and displacing 17 others, including Hernandez.

Seven buildings were damaged, including five that remained at least partially unsafe for occupancy. Entry is prohibited to a single-family home and two duplexes deemed completely uninhabitable, according to the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.

Kimberly Erendira, 12, was among those whose homes were gutted by the fire. Seven buildings were damaged or destroyed.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

As neighbors sift through the remains of their belongings and look for a new home, many point to the building under construction. City records show it was to be a four-story affordable housing complex and received expedited processing, permitting and approvals under Mayor Karen Bass’s Executive Directive 1 .

“I blame the owner of the yard,” Hernández said. “They were trying to turn this small plot of land into a four-story building next to small houses. Whoever agreed to this project must be held responsible.

The site, just steps from neighboring homes, had a problem with trespassers and no security guards on the property, several neighbors said.

Jerardo Diaz, 30, whose family had lived in the house just behind the construction site for 35 years, even asked construction crews to erect a larger fence to give his family more privacy. In front of the charred remains of his house now hangs a red flyer from the Department of Building and Safety reading: “Dangerous / Do not enter or occupy.” »

The site’s contractor, Arrow Construction Co. in Artesia, did not respond to a request for comment.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation and it is unclear when authorities will make a decision, according to Los Angeles Fire Department spokeswoman Margaret Stewart.

Blackened and burned cars burn in front of a destroyed house

The cause of this week’s massive fire in the Central-Alameda neighborhood is still under investigation, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Meanwhile, those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed are struggling to know what to do as families face the prospect of a holiday period spent rebuilding or looking for a new home.

“Explaining to a child, when it’s Christmas, (that) all their friends have toys but they won’t be able to have any this year – because right now their mom and dad need to have “a roof over their head – it’s a good idea. be their reality,” said Edward Winters, 63, of Lynwood, a former East Vernon Avenue resident who came Wednesday morning to help his neighbors after having seen a GoFundMe page created for Hernandez.

Hernández said he received no help from his landlord or communication from the construction site contractor. He moonlights as a dental assistant and DJ, and said he lost three cars and $15,000 worth of DJ equipment in the fire, among other possessions.

Hilda Flores, who has known Hernandez for 20 years and created the GoFundMe page, is hosting his family in her two-bedroom apartment in Glendale and has urged them to stop returning to their destroyed home.

“I told them, ‘Leave the clothes.’ These are all material things that we can buy back,” said Flores, 41. “It’s not safe.”

Large planks of charred wood protrude into the driveway leading to the house, and pieces of insulation fall from the damaged ceiling despite a tarp they installed to cover it. Smoke and pieces of charcoal linger in the air.

“The main thing is we need a place to stay,” said Isabel Perez, 67, Hernandez’s wife. “A two bedroom in this neighborhood. Nothing? Really.”

Neighbors expressed concern about the mental well-being of displaced families. Perez believes her husband has been suffering from depression since the fire and says their dog, Mia, suffered head burns and needs to be taken to the vet.

“Omar cries every hour and wakes up in the middle of the night crying because of nightmares,” she said. “Mia also continues to moan and cry. If something is seriously wrong with Mia, he could die.

“At least we survived,” Perez whispered as he rocked Mia.

A spokesperson for Councilman Curren Price, who represents the area, acknowledged the anguish felt by victims and said the American Red Cross assisted in the city’s emergency response.

“They’re in limbo, living day to day,” Angelina Valencia said of the displaced residents, adding that at least one family has temporarily moved to Bakersfield to stay with relatives.

Price met with victims Tuesday afternoon and his office coordinated with local organizations to give families clothing, toiletries, baby wipes, diapers and toys.

“Our own staff donated baby clothes because most of the affected families have young children, ranging in age from one month to 12 years old,” Valencia said.

Price’s office had contacted two families and was working to reach others.

A small group standing behind a yellow ribbon reading "The line of fire does not cross" as a crew works from a fire truck in the background

Evacuated residents were stunned Tuesday morning, many left homeless, after the East Vernon Avenue fire.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The Red Cross has also provided resident cards with funds, but “that’s only meant to help them in the short term to meet their immediate needs,” Valencia said. “Yet families feel confused and desperate for answers because they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. »

A rescue team, social workers and volunteers have been in contact with displaced residents and will continue to offer assistance in the coming days, said Stephanie Grande, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross’ Los Angeles region. . A temporary evacuation center closed at 1 p.m. the day the fire broke out.

“Casework assistance often involves connecting those affected by a disaster with existing social service programs in the community, helping them navigate complex paperwork, providing financial assistance to help them to meet their immediate needs and find support from other agencies to help them meet longer-term recovery needs. ” Grande said.

After the shock of the fire, Julise Jimemes, 56, said the neighborhood came together to provide whatever support they could to the displaced families.

When Jimemes woke up Tuesday morning, she was convinced her house would be engulfed in fire. She packed all her important papers and belongings into her car and prepared to flee with her 87-year-old mother.

But after firefighters put out the blaze, Jimemes’ home remained unharmed.

Grateful to be one of the lucky ones, she couldn’t stand to see the neighbors struggling in the neighborhood where she has lived for 35 years. On Friday, she said, she planned to cook dinner for Hernandez’s family.

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