The pungent tang of red chili peppers wafted through the produce district of downtown Los Angeles on Monday morning, forcing shoppers to cover their noses and mouths as they darted in and out of bustling shops.
It had been more than 12 hours since 200 firefighters tackled flames and irritating smoke Sunday evening at a strip mall of small independently owned Latino businesses selling chili peppers, candies and restaurant supplies, piñatas and other merchandise, but a tinge of spice still lingered after the blaze.
Everything on the large property in the 800 block of South Central Avenue was covered in fine peppery ash as firefighters sloshed through puddles of water speckled with long red chili peppers and debris.
"Firefighters came back late last night, even after they took a shower, and they were like, 'Man, I still got this burning sensation,'" said Capt. Scott La Rue of the Los Angeles Fire Department.
The blaze, which started just after 6:30 p.m., burned for hours because of the large amount of bulky goods inside the businesses, he said. During the firefight, firefighters climbed onto the roof to tackle the flames but retreated hastily when conditions inside the buildings became too dangerous. No one was injured in the fire.
The cause of the blaze remains under investigation, the fire captain said. There was no evidence of foul play, he said.
Rocio Hernandez's produce store wasn't damaged in the fire, but she said her business probably will be affected. Hernandez shares a parking lot with the damaged businesses, which are across from her store.
"It's going to affect us all, but I am hoping they repair the damage quickly," she said.
Yanira Moreira's warehouse, which she co-owns with her husband, Luis, was one of several businesses destroyed by the stubborn blaze. She said one of her employees called about 6:30 p.m. and told her, "Patrona, your store is on fire."
Moreira said she replied, "This is a joke, right?" He told her, "No, this is serious."
Moreira, a native of El Salvador, and her husband opened Flaco's Produce nine years ago, selling pots, plates, vegetables, lard and all types of chili peppers to a well-established clientele of restaurant owners and food vendors. She said she came to the United States with a dream of being able to own her own things and share them with her family.
The 45-year-old mother of two adult sons had worked for 15 years on food trucks as a lonchera before she and her husband were able to save up enough money to open their business.
"That's where all of my savings went," she said. "A lot of money was invested, but we have to move forward."
Wearing a dust mask over her mouth and nose, Moreira stared at the charred remnants of her business Monday morning. From the ruins, firefighters managed to retrieve several drawers from a filing cabinet containing important documents, money and a check from a customer — all of which were soaked.
Her stepson, Alfredo Medina Villalobos, tried to wring the dollar bills out the best he could. The 25-year-old had traveled from his native Honduras to Los Angeles just two months ago.
He hoped to help his family with the business, but now, Medina Villalobos said he's not sure what the future will hold.
"We are just going to have to start all over again," he said.