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Burning in the Grid: The Islands of Yuma County

YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA/KECY) - On this particular neighborhood off of 8th Street and 20th Ave, you will find the remains of what was once the homes of several residents.

The burnt skeleton of a trailer home still stands, take a peek inside and you will see ash, a television with a cracked screen, a vacuum, lot's of half-burnt documents; a police report it seems. All these are just a few of several items left behind after a fire ravished through the lot back in August of 2019.

"Anyone that is not paying taxes to the City of Yuma would be in the unincorporated areas of Yuma county," says Rural Metro Chief Tim Soule.

Within the City of Yuma exist so-called “county islands", basically plots of land that are not incorporated into the city but rather just part of the county.

With lower taxes, many county island landowners rent out to tenants that are typically below the poverty line. One of those landowners is George Munoz.

“We live below the poverty line," says Munoz. "We go to the food bank, a lot of the people here probably 7 out of 9 [that lived there] have food stamps."

According to 2018 US Census data, 14% of residents in the entire State of Arizona live under the federal poverty line. In Yuma County, 19.5% of its population is considered to live under poverty.

That's almost one in five people.

"If I bumped up the rent, let's say if it was $50 each, I wouldn’t have any customers because these people can’t afford it."

In Munoz's now-empty lot, 7 trailers and 2 apartment units would sit on the lot. Rent ranged from $150 to no more than $300 a month, a fraction of the average median rent of $854 according to Census data.

Now, Munoz is left with rubble and debris that must be cleared as well as debt that keeps on piling on putting an abrupt stop to the cash flow. On top off all, he had no insurance so the liability falls on him.

Housing safety conditions and standards for both the city and county follow the State of Arizona's building codes. At the local level, there is no real enforcement that requires property owners to have some sort of insurance in case of such disasters.

"Basically for me time is running out and not having an income coming in and relying on a family member it's very difficult,” says Munoz. "An option that I have also is bankruptcy would stop everything."

For now, Munoz is selling his property for $185,000 but he is hoping to sell for $100,000. To this day, Munoz still believes that local fire agencies could’ve done more to save his home and the homes of his tenants.

“Pay for spray," Munoz exclaims. "If you don’t pay you get the minimum spray."

Rural Metro offers fire and rescue services to the county islands, the price is based on the size of the home and property value. It's an extra cost that Munoz says he would have had to pay out of pocket, being that his tenants could barely afford rent.

Regardless of payment, Rural Metro reassures that they do not check which areas have a subscription to their services before responding.

“So I was not here for that fire [trailer fire]," says Chief Soule. "But any fire that happens in the city or the unincorporated areas they are going to get a response by Rural Metro and potentially the city or MCAS Yuma."

Mike Erfert, a Public Information Officer for Yuma Fire Department explains that oftentimes both Rural Metro and Yuma Fire aid each other when responding to a rescue scene. It isn't an official agreement, but it's one that has worked for the area.

“There isn’t an existing mutual aid agreement between our department and the Rural Metro," says Erfert. "If it does turn out to be at a county we are not going to wait at a 'borderline'.”

Munoz mentions that he was informed that the reason why it took so long to put out the blaze was the lack of access to a fire hydrant. But according to Rural Metro, the tools used were enough to put the fire to rest. Chief Soule adds that often times geographical and environmental conditions fuel a fire, leading to greater destruction.

We did reach out to Yuma County for comment on this story but they have yet to accept any interviews regarding this story.

“The county doesn’t want to spend any money," says Munoz. "The people here don’t want to incorporate into the city because of the taxes.”

Article Topic Follows: News

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Christian Galeno

Christian Galeno joined the News 11/CBS 13 team in July of 2019 as a Weekend Anchor and multimedia journalist. He now anchors 13 on Your Side at 6, and 10.

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