POPLAR — It only took an approximate 30 minutes for Gregorio Rodriguez to see his dream destroyed. His bakery business, La Potosina Panaderia, was one of several businesses and homes devoured by a rogue July 9 fire.
During an investigation, Southern California Edison confirmed it was started by power lines rubbing on a tree. And by the time the fire department arrived, the fire had spread, leaving destruction along its path. Lost in the fire was a bakery, a hair salon, a multipurpose/storage building at the Larry Itliong Research Center, a mini mart, taqueria, meat market, two mobile homes, a small house and vehicles, leaving 12 people displaced and Poplar’s Service District in ashes.
“I feel like I’ve been hit on the head with a hammer,” Rodriguez said. “To see all my dreams of many years and then in a few minutes, it was all gone.”
Rodriguez said he has worked in a bakery for 40 years.
“Yes, I do this as a living but I always loved my work. I did it for love and I will return again to it. It’s my life. I can’t imagine another life.” Rodriguez said. “It’s hard. I come by every morning and every time I remember it all over again,” he said. “I’ll never forget it. It looked like torch, a really strong fire. There was nothing left to do but watch.”
His dream took years, he said. He first tried to open the business in 2015 but he ran into a lot of red tape.
“I had to keep getting permit after permit. Then I got sick for a year and had to start over. The (county) kept saying no,” Rodriguez said.
In the meantime, he worked at his brother’s bakery “La Cabana” in East Porterville.
Finally in 2019 Rodriguez said he got a permit and was able to start his bakery in Poplar.
But summer is a slow time, he said, and he was planning and looking forward to leaving for three weeks to see family he had not seen in 30 years.
“But from one day to another, it was all gone,” he said. “Never in my life have I had handouts. I always worked hard. I never took days off for 30 years. Only when COVID came, we closed for a month. Otherwise we are here, 14-16 hours a day, working hard.”
On Friday night, Rodriguez said he kept waking up.
“That first night after the fire, Friday night, I kept waking up scared, thinking of the fire, thinking the building was still on fire,” he said. “Even days later, I continue to wake up.”
He wasn't the only one affected. His 12 year old daughter is suffering from nightmares and cried often, scared of the fire.
“She’s finally stopped but for a while every time we heard the ambulance or sirens, we would look at each other, scared, and I ran out a couple of times to make sure it did not catch fire again,” Rodriguez said.
“It’s been bad. I get up each morning and come by (the bakery) and each time I remember the fire all over again,” said Rodriguez, who lives only two homes from his business with his wife Sylvia Almanza and two daughters.
He works the first shift, he said, and had just left the bakery Friday afternoon to take a nap before returning when his wife called crying.
“My wife called to say the building was on fire,” Rodriguez said. “At first I thought she was kidding me but then I heard her crying. I grabbed a shirt and ran out the door. I’m just thankful she got out and she was all right.”
The family isn't the only one suffering. Hector Cabrera, owner of the meat market inside the mini mart said he thought he was having a heart attack or stroke on Tuesday night.
“I’ve had a lot of palpitations since the fire,” Cabrera said. “Tuesday night I had chest pain and I couldn’t breathe. I was rushed to the emergency room at the hospital.”
And after receiving nitroglycerin under his tongue and after a lot of tests, he was released.
“It was anxiety,” he said. “I lost everything. I had just bought some new microwaves and they had just delivered a lot of meat.”
He still gets anxiety, he said, wondering how he will pay rent and utilities and other bills.
“I almost didn’t get out,” he said of Friday. “I did not know the building was on fire. I couldn’t hear anything. I had my back to the door and was busy chopping meat. I had a big order of 20 pounds of meat and I was chopping it.”
A young man ran in and was yelling at him. But he just kept chopping, oblivious to the fire. He ran up to him and grabbed him by the arm. When he turned, he saw the building was on fire.
“It was on fire and I didn’t know. I would have died there,” he said. “I ran out. I didn’t even have time to get my cash box.”
The stories were all similar.
The owners of Adam’s Mini Mart not only lost their business, they also lost their homes — two mobile homes behind the business.
“One of them, Anees, had just returned from a three-month trip to Yemen and had gone to his home to sleep,” said Mari Perez-Ruiz, the executive director of Central Valley Empowerment Alliance at the Larry Itlong Research Center next door to the bakery. “If Cisco (minimart staff) did not run to wake him, he would have been burned to death.”
In addition, the owner of the mini mart was making arrangements to bring his family to the United States and had only recently arranged all the passports for them.
“That’s why he kept running back into the store,” Gregorio Rodriguez said. “He was looking for the passports. The firemen finally kept him from running back in. Now his dreams are gone.”
In addition, Perez-Ruiz said the store had a lot of cash on hand.
“Since it was Friday, just one hour before the fire, they had come from the bank with $100,000 to have cash on hand to cash checks,” Perez-Ruiz said. “It all burned.”
The Larry Itliong Research Center served the community and surrounding area. On the day of the fire, they were about to administer 75 vaccines to youth age 12 and older. After the vaccines, they would go to the side of the building for a free backpack filled with supplies and to get four to five new school outfits each at the event. But because the 400 backpacks and $100,000 of Forever 21 clothing was on the side of the house, it was among the first things to burn.
“We still have to figure out how we are going to do this,” said Arturo Rodriguez, communications and organizing director of Central Valley Empowerment Alliance. “We help 350 to 400 families every week here.”
Business owners who gathered Wednesday morning to talk said they were determined to build again.
“We will build something better,” Rodrigo said. “We are all part of this town, this community. The community needs this.”
But they all realize it will take time, Perez-Ruiz said.
“We all know each other. There’s a lot of community pride here. It’s going to be a long road but all of us feel super connected,” Arturo Rodriguez said. “We are going to continue being the hub. We won’t let this tragedy be without benefits.”
Perez-Ruiz said she's hoping it all happens sooner than later, California Senator Melissa Hurtado will visit the community today, and Central Valley Empowerment Alliance has arranged for Street Medicine – a group of 12 physicians, and some mental health workers, who will be onsite today for the community, starting with those directly affected by the fire.
“We hope the agencies reach out and expedite the process to help our business owners,” she said. “We hope the county and state can help. But we are not a city so we don’t have the proper infrastructure.”
In the meantime, the mop up will begin. “We need to clean out our space and rebuild,” Perez-Ruiz said. “We cannot wait years. I’m going to be pushing for the next six months. But many do not qualify for assistance. And for a community this size, this is huge.”
The one good thing, Gregorio Rodriguez said, was no one was killed or hurt badly.
“There were at least 100 people out here, and 75 young people in the building,” he said. “We’re all like family. We see each other daily and are always connected in one way or another. Customers go from business to business here when they shop — hitting the store, the carniceria and then come to the bakery. We are all connected.”
But the fire will forever change them all.
“I’ll never be the same again,” Gregorio Rodriguez said. “Now that we lived it, we just aren’t the same.”
Gift cards to Target, Walmart and similar stores are being accepted at the Larry Itliong Research Center at 14665 Road 192 in Poplar. There's also a go fund me page at https://gofund.me/f41bc22f or one can call Arturo Rodriguez at 916-620-5052.