Pedro Dominguez Dominguez and two of his children, Joseph and Viridiana Dominguez, were all killed in a fire in Pedro’s mobile home at the Desert Shores Trailer Park in Desert Shores on Friday morning, Nov. 26. These photos show the children when they were much younger. Viri was 14 and Joseph was 9 at the time of their deaths. | FACEBOOK PHOTOS
DESERT SHORES — Fourteen-year-old Viridiana Dominguez was a freshman at Desert Mirage High in Thermal, and her little brother, 9-year-old Joseph, was a fourth-grader at Oasis Elementary on the border between Thermal and the unincorporated community of Oasis, both in eastern Coachella Valley.
The brother and sister had reportedly spent Thanksgiving, Nov. 25, with their father, 33-year-old Pedro Dominguez Dominguez, in his mobile home at the Desert Shores Trailer Park in Desert Shores at the northern edge of Imperial County, next to the western shore of the Salton Sea.
Dominguez and the children did not live together, and their mother was due to pick them up from their father’s place on Friday, Nov. 26, when the unimaginable happened.
The mother arrived at the scene of the fire either while it was still burning or shortly after; some reported that she was on her way to pick up the kids before the fire broke out, others say she was called to the scene and rushed there from Thermal.
In the rural, removed meeting point between far northern Imperial County and extreme southeastern Riverside County, there is much poverty and services can be few and far between. Help, like in the case of the Desert Shores fire, seems to have initially and largely come from a partnership between the nonprofit world and the Coachella Valley Unified School District.
For the Dominguez family, the school district and its partners have been directly helping the mother and providing services and crisis counseling to schoolmates of Joseph and Viri, said Beatriz “Bea” Gonzalez, Coachella Valley Unified’s coordinator of expanded learning and after-school programs.
Joseph and Viridiana, like many of the children in the rural areas served by Coachella Valley Unified, were part of the grant-funded After School Education and Safety (ASES) program, Gonzalez said, where both spent their afternoons participating in enrichment programs. ASES in Imperial County is normally for elementary-aged schoolchildren only, but Gonzalez said ninth-grade Viri was part of the program.
“They were amazing, amazing … They were great kids, very engaged. You know, they participated in a lot of STEM activities, sports, music, just very engaged, very involved,” Gonzalez said during an interview Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 1. “Wonderful, wonderful kids.”
Joseph reportedly participated in the ASES robotics program and Viri played soccer and was involved in cheerleading at Desert Mirage, according to information from a GoFundMe site.
Autopsies for the three family members were completed on Tuesday, Nov. 30, and although it isn’t known when the remains will be released to family, Gonzalez said she has already helped family members navigate through the next steps.
“I was able to work with the widow of the gentleman that perished and the mother of the two children who also perished … and they didn’t even know how to begin the process, like what happens when the bodies were taken,” Gonzalez said. “We also assisted them in meeting with funeral homes, connecting them to organizations that that could assist with funeral costs.”
The mother of the children did not lose her home, so Gonzalez said some of her needs were different. “When I asked her husband, what is her No. 1 need right now … He said she just wanted to know what’s going to happen with her children. … That’s where we focused immediately and in assisting the family going with them to the funeral home.”
There have also been the indirect psychological needs of the students who have lost a classmate in Viridiana and Joseph. Gonzalez said those students are now working through understanding the loss.
The Riverside County Latino Commission, a nonprofit service provider that works closely with the Coachella Valley school district, had crisis counselors available for students in a general way and targeted services for the classmates of Viri and Joseph.
“They were able to speak immediately to students who interacted with them quite often and the instructors as well, and then, of course, made themselves available to the school site as a whole,” she said.
Similar to the way the Calexico Family Resource Center at the Calexico Unified School District provides multiple layers of outreach to the district’s neediest families, Coachella Valley Unified functions in a similar fashion for all of the families who live in Imperial County but are in Riverside County schools.
That similar situation is present at not just Oasis and Desert Mirage, but at Sea View Elementary, West Shores Middle School, and West Shores High School, Gonzalez said.
“We understand the circumstances, and across the school district there is a lot of poverty, but especially in that area in the south, where it’s desolate. We do the absolute best that we can to provide them with experiences that they may otherwise not have access to and activities,” Gonzalez said
“We just automatically gravitate to whatever the need is. We don’t try to figure out, we already know we’re going to help; we just need to go head on, to see what is absolutely necessary, what the priorities are, and then we take it from there. And I’m very grateful, you know, that through the school district, we have a lot of really good relationships in the community.”
She credited Brawley-based Comite Civico Del Valle as being one of those partners, and throughout the Desert Shores fire response, Comite Civico and its partners in Salud Sin Fronteras, members Los Amigos de la Comunidad and Our Multi-Cultural Center, have come up big, not just for the families affected by the fire but for all of the residents living in substandard conditions at the trailer park.
On Sunday, Nov. 28, Salud Sin Fronteras was on site assessing immediate and mid-range needs and returned on Monday, Nov. 29 to provide cash payments of $10,000 total to the five families still on site affected by the fire.
“We have been able to release these dollars because we know from our experience when people go through an incident where a fire destroys all your property, it could also have destroyed your identification. So giving them a check immediately probably may not be helpful and that proved to be true, because at least one of the families had no identification,” said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico, which had the money to give through grant funding from the California Endowment and Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.
“They might have a very difficult time cashing checks, so we wanted to put cash in their hands so that they can buy food, buy clothes, whatever they needed immediately,” Olmedo said.
He was accompanied by Salud Sin Fronteras and Los Amigos de la Comunidad and Our Multi-Cultural Center members Eric Reyes, Isabel Solis and John Hernandez.
The funding presumably went to the same five families that Imperial County officials referenced in an interview with this newspaper on Sunday, when County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas said a team of five Department of Social Services staff members had signed up five of the seven families for some level of assistance. He said at the time that one family left the county and one had refused assistance.
Rouhotas did not return requests for an update on the services being provided for in Desert Shores by publication.
Meanwhile, the needs at the trailer park are great, nor just for those affected by the fire, but for most who live there. Olmedo and Reyes reported seeing trailers where electrical wiring was exposed and clearly jerry-rigged, and other potential exposures and hazards.
“We’ve dealt with these types of situations before. What we saw was not atypical … violations and we could see squalor, it’s not being taken care of by the owner or the residents either,” Reyes said. “You know, (the poor) they’re susceptible to these type of things because of the places they live in because it’s what they can afford. I’m not just talking about this particular place … It’s part of an economic chain.”
Part of decision for Salud Sin Fronteras’ partners to assist is they know there to be limitations to the reach of government. Reyes and Olmedo’s organizations are known for their outreach to farmworker and migrant communities, and Desert Shores Trailer Park fits on both accounts.
Frankly, there does seem to be some questionable immigration status with many people living in the park, so there is likely a reluctance to seek assistance for fear of government reprisal.
“I believe that they are (fearful). Yeah, they are definitely concerned, because when we first went out there on Sunday, it took a while for them to kind of warm up to us,” Olmedo said during an interview on Tuesday, Nov. 30. “They’re confused, too, because there was again some other efforts out there to organize around the trailer park issues. So, I think that they were trying to figure out whether we were part of that effort, which we have no knowledge of. But we explained to them we were there independently.”
Rouhotas said over the weekend that immigration status would not affect the county’s effort to provide aid.
More help was coming, both from the county and from Comite Civico and Salud Sin Fronteras. Apparently, the county in getting the pieces in place to secure grant funding, according to Deputy CEO Esperanza Colio, who was working on the issue remotely from out of town but did not provide further details.
From Olmedo’s end, his staff and others were to be back at Desert Shores Trailer Park on Friday, Dec. 3 to issue checks of $500 to more than 40 individuals living there in abject poverty — that’s at least $40,000 on top of the $10,000 already paid out, according to Olmedo.
How much those conditions at the trailer park played into what happened on the morning of Nov. 26, or during any of the previous fires, is not clear and might never be known in this case.
Structurally, the trailer park has problems; that can be seen, but beyond that it wasn’t immediately known. One of 78 mobile home and RV parks under the authority of the Imperial County Planning and Services Department’s building inspection division, there is no immediate way to inspect records or violations tied to the conditions or operations of the trailer park.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development kicked the issue to the county, and the county has not responded to a Public Records Act request for documentation tied to the park for the past five years.
In terms of the fire investigation, Imperial County Fire Chief Alfredo Estrada on Tuesday afternoon said it might never be known how or where the fire started that killed Pedro Dominguez and his children.
“Even though the investigation hasn’t ended, everything seems to point at this time to the cause of the fire as undetermined. It was just so severely burnt up that they could not find, the investigator could not find an ignition source,” Estrada said. “Typically, they look for patterns, matches, accelerants, etc. And at this point, thus far, they have not found that so that’s not conclusive.
“That’s not uncommon. When something burns intense like that, that exact cause, well no, we won’t have a conclusive finding,” he added.
Estrada couldn’t comment about fire inspections on the trailer park, referring a reporter back to the county planning and building department. He added the volunteer fire departments in the area have dissolved and could not say where any fire inspections had been done since that.
When Reyes and Olmedo left Desert Shores Trailer Park on Monday, Nov. 29, after sundown, they left an appreciative group of people who despite the tragedy were celebrating a birthday with a carne asada.
Olmedo said it was good to “break bread” with families, who invited the Imperial Valley contingent for tacos. Reyes said it was actually a birthday celebration for a disabled man who arrested the day before by Imperial County Sheriff’s Office deputies over a misunderstanding.
“That was a very emotional time. He thought his mother was in the fire. It was right next to his parents’ trailer, so he was going crazy looking for his mother and nobody could talk to him when he there, because he’s deaf mute,” said Reyes, who added the man was arrested because deputies thought he was acting in a threatening manner. “But we helped get him out. Hopefully, that’s gonna go away. It was an emotional situation.”