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Santa PaulaVentura fire

Santa Paula residents eye approaching flames with trepidation

Milo Solis sprays water on his property in Santa Paula on Tuesday. (Laura Nelson)
Milo Solis sprays water on his property in Santa Paula on Tuesday. (Laura Nelson)

Darlene Gonzalez stood in a neighbor’s driveway in Santa Paula, clutching her phone in both hands as she recorded video of the Thomas fire moving down a hillside, toward her home.

For hours, flames had been creeping down the hill, leaving trees and chaparral blackened and smoldering. Gonzalez's house — the tan one with the big brown porch — stood untouched, but flames burned about 40 feet away.

She tried not to cry as a gust of wind fanned the flames closer.

“You work so hard all your life, and now this,” Gonzalez said. “But what can you do? Fire is fire.” 

Gonzales and her husband moved into the neighborhood off Coronado Circle two years ago, like many of their neighbors. The first homes in the area were built about a decade ago, and dozens more were added in the last three years, residents said.

The homes border hundreds of acres of undeveloped land in the northern corner of Santa Paula. The land there has not seen a fire in more than three decades, and the Thomas fire is eating through years of brush and debris, residents said.

Gonzalez and her husband scrambled to evacuate by 6 p.m. Monday, just after they got off work. They fled with clothes, passports and other paperwork, but left her husband’s most-cherished possessions in the garage: a 1959 Chevrolet El Camino and a 1928 Ford (“a Bonnie and Clyde car,” Gonzalez said). 

“We just had to go,” Gonzalez said. “We didn’t know how fast it was going to come.”

Meanwhile, Milo Solis, 38, stood perched on the concrete drainage channel behind his house on North 10th Street and Coronado Circle, spraying down a row of bushes and bougainvillea with a garden hose. His home backs up to the burning hillside. The flames were about 100 yards from his property line.

Solis evacuated Monday night, grabbing a few changes of clothes and his life insurance policy. Then he rode out of the neighborhood on his Harley. (“I couldn’t leave her behind,” Solis said. “I evacuated in style.”)

Against the advice of firefighters and police who had blocked off the neighborhood, Solis returned to his house Tuesday morning to put out any spot fires. The homes in the neighborhood are close together, and others would burn if one went up, he said.

At 10 a.m., the fire had stopped at a wide gap in the brush. Solis continued to spray the bushes with water. “If it gets past the break, I’m going to have to get out of here,” he said.

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