Perfecting their house was a labor of love. They lost it to fire in seconds

Perfecting their house was a labor of love. They lost it to fire in seconds
Lorrie and Jake Colborn spent four decades making their home near Ojai their own. After it went up in flames, this is all that remained. (Matt Hamilton / Los Angeles Times)

A tiny house stood on the property along Highway 150 between Ojai and Santa Paula that Lorrie and Jake Colborn bought in 1975.

Over four decades — he a carpenter and contractor, she a nurse — the Colborns transformed the home themselves and made it their own. Having renovated countless Craftsman-style homes, Jake put his skills to work. The tiny home became a three-bedroom Craftsman with a huge deck, floor-to-ceiling fireplace and a guest room attached to the garage.

Family members got married in the backyard. Jake and Lorrie even renewed their vows there. The ashes of dead relatives were lovingly placed by the mantle. Above an outdoor fireplace was a portrait of Jake’s late mother, the family matriarch.

The property became their lifeblood. Jake, 69, developed a successful contracting business and built cabinetry out of the workshop adjacent to their home. They added two rental cottages to the spread, along with a pool, lush gardens and storage for a trailer.

But in an instant, this small empire for the Colborns became engulfed in flames.

The Thomas fire ripped through this remote stretch of Highway 150, picking some homes and ranches to destroy and sparing others.

As the wildfire continues to rage across the county, flames stalled in the Upper Ojai Valley on Wednesday, allowing the Colborns and others to return and see the damage.

Authorities believe hundreds of homes have been lost, both in rural areas and in the heart of Ventura. No total damage estimates have been made public.

There was a randomness to the destruction.

About 150 yards away, the home of the Colborns’ neighbors — the Lindsay family — stood nearly untouched.

“We were fortunate,” said Bill Lindsay, 42. He did have some structures burn on his property, but he was grateful the home withstood the inferno. “A lot of our friends and neighbors lost much more than we did,” he said.

The Colborns stood with their daughter and reckoned with how the home they built over 42 years vanished in a flash. Where two wood columns stood atop mounds of smooth rock, in the signature Craftsman style for a doorway, only the blackened embers remained.

“It was a nice little entryway and wood door that Jake built,” Lorrie said, sighing. “Oh well.”

Family members worked to try to find the wood boxes and urns containing the ashes of late relatives. Lorrie recovered some charred silver spoons — the remnants of her collection — and a metal sign that said, “Simplify.”

But so much was gone: family photos, Jake’s workshop, the windows and doors and walls behind which they raised two sons and a daughter.

Just two weeks ago, they installed new carpet and wooden floors. “At least I got to enjoy them for a week,” Lorrie said.

On Monday night, Lorrie, 70, was watching the hills by their home. “Embers came on the deck, and the search-and-rescue crew member told us to get out,” she said. They fled with haste — Lorrie left her purse behind, her brother-in-law said.

Having survived two nearby fires before, she admitted to not being worried. Seeing the devastation in person made it feel real.

“His whole life is gone,” said older brother Jim Colborn, 72, a former Major League Baseball pitcher who was a pitching coach for the the Dodgers in the early 2000s.

There were some small miracles. That prized portrait of Jake and Jim’s mother somehow blew off the fireplace, and the family found it in the garden. It survived the fire, in a virtual island of dirt.

“Somehow it landed in the middle of the field,” Jim said, calling it a fitting stroke of resilience that echoed their mother’s spirit.

But the ashes were not recovered.

“All these people’s ashes are mixed with the ashes of the building,” Jim said. “They can be part of the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

For his part, Jake was mostly stoic and focused on the work ahead. He drilled open a family safe to try to recover some valuables. And he joked that he could offer a reporter a sun-dried tomato left behind by the fire.

But Jim related something his brother had confided: “Well, there’s a lifetime gone, but I can do it all over again and get it right this time.”

Tom and Jenny DiCiolli pulled up to their Ventura home Wednesday afternoon only to find mounds of rubble and ash.

They had learned about the condition of their home the night before, after a co-worker walking through the neighborhood surveyed the damage.

“Coming through the neighborhood and seeing the homes of everyone you know, it’s sad,” said Jenny, 63. “It would be one thing if it was just a couple houses.”

“It’s devastating,” her husband said. “A lot of communities and a lot of lives have been changed.”

Tom said the couple had been asleep for about an hour Monday night when they were told to evacuate.

“You wake up to this and you have only 15 minutes to consider what to take,” the 63-year-old said.

Jenny grabbed the documents for the house and birth certificates while he grabbed his computer and some photo albums — something his wife hadn’t realized.

“You took them?” she asked, surprised. “I was crying over them.”

Tom called the experience a “very surreal event for sure.” The hills behind them were scorched and black, and their neighbors’ homes on both sides were also burned down. All that remained was their singed chimney, their washer and dryer, and a brand-new fence the neighbor had just installed.

“I don’t think we’re banking on finding anything,” he said. “So any memorable item, from a blanket to a pendant” would be nice.

Hamilton reported from Ojai; Parvini from Ventura.