After Borderline and a deadly fire, this Ventura County supervisor wonders ‘if another shoe is going to drop’
Linda Parks navigates her car up a winding street and sighs as she points out where fire has scorched the hillsides, now bald and black.
She usually finds solace in running and cycling in these mountains — “they’re kind of like my churches,” she says, gazing at them. But she quickly focuses her attention back on the road; there is no time to dwell today.
Parks, a Ventura County supervisor, is meeting with residents of Bell Canyon, an affluent community north of Calabasas where 36 homes were destroyed in a recent blaze. Then, she has to attend a funeral for a 23-year-old killed in the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks. The commitments are just an hour apart, across town.
It’s a Saturday, but it’s hectic, like all the days since Nov. 8, when a massacre at a bar was followed by devastating fires. When Thousand Oaks, the biggest city in the district Parks has represented for more than 15 years, became a household name. When crisis came all at once.
Parks spent the first hours after the Borderline Bar and Grill shooting at a reunification center trying to comfort family members. Her eyes, a bright bluish-green, take on a far-off look when she recalls the memory, as though it’s too painful. She watched police tell parent after parent that their child had not survived.
“I’ll tell you, after the Borderline shooting, the fires were easy,” Parks says as she pulls into Bell Canyon.
But now that the danger from the Woolsey fire, which torched 1,600 structures across L.A. and Ventura counties, has dissipated, many here are beginning to grapple with how to move forward after such calamity.
Some feel their pain has been minimized, as journalists and public officials alike say that catastrophic weather events and mass shootings are now a regular part of American life. The tragedies seem to have been deemed a new normal, but here, in their aftermath, it feels far from it.
To Parks, that the two disasters descended simultaneously seems like unbelievable bad luck, and she fears the streak is not over. What’s next, she thinks: Mudslides? Earthquakes?
“You wonder if another shoe is going to drop,” says Parks, 61, “because we’ve just been hit with so much.”
Parks takes the microphone in the Bell Canyon community room, where more than 100 people pack in.
A quiet woman with a clear voice, Parks was elected to represent the southeastern corner of Ventura County, the part that borders Los Angeles County.
Her schedule is typically filled with meetings with constituents and other officials. For the past two weeks, though, her duties have been those of crisis management — funerals and news conferences and emergency town halls.
“I know what we’re here for, we would rather not be here for,” Parks says to the crowd, sighing again.
Tables in the community room are piled with jeans and sweaters, deodorant and toothpaste tubes, stuffed animals and other donations. People wear shirts that say “Bell Canyon Strong.”
The Woolsey fire is the first to destroy homes in Bell Canyon, where the first houses were built in 1969, residents say.
“This thing just rips right through,” says Tim Brehm, a retired photographer who successfully defended his home from the flames. “This is, by far and away, the fastest-moving fire we’ve ever experienced.”
Parks finishes speaking and rushes out of the neighborhood. On one side of the road, the wispy trees are light green. On the other, frayed and brown.
She says she wants to move power lines underground, since many fires are caused by sparking lines. She also wants to discourage building houses in places deemed a high fire risk.
But many worry that policy changes won’t be enough to stop destructive fires. Fire officials say that the effects of years-long drought and climate change have made it nearly impossible for firefighters to contain blazes.
Gov. Jerry Brown recently warned that California is in for more unstoppable mega-fires, calling it a “new abnormal.”
One day after the shooting, Parks was evacuated from her home in Thousand Oaks due to fires. She and her husband couch-surfed for four nights until they could return. After seeing how quickly the Thomas fire moved last year, she thought her home might burn down, she says.
“It used to be, it’ll hit the coast in three days,” she says. “Now, it’s, it’ll hit the coast in a matter of hours.”
An urban planner, she rose to political prominence as a champion of preserving open space. She was elected to the Thousand Oaks City Council in 1996 and the Board of Supervisors six years after that.
Now, the children she chose to raise here have moved away and are in their late 20s and early 30s — around the same age as most of the victims of the Borderline shooting.
Early Nov. 8, a few hours after the fatal bullets were fired, Parks found herself at the reunification center because she didn’t know where else to go. She spent nine hours there, listening to parents and giving them tissues. There wasn’t anything to do but console them.
Twelve people died at Borderline in addition to the shooter, who killed himself.
Nine families waited at the reunification center, but there was no reunification, according to Parks. Some were in denial. Some wept.
After sitting alongside the parents for the toughest moments of their lives, Parks knows them intimately. She hugs them at their children’s funerals.
She left the reunification center around 11 a.m. and later that day — she’s pretty sure it was the same day, though the frenzied timeline has begun to blur — her office was turned into a victims assistance center.
There, she watched police hand parents their dead child’s possessions — a son’s cellphone and wallet, a daughter’s necklace.
She recalls the scene as she drives to the funeral and winces. She can’t push the image from her head. She tries to further describe what she witnessed but can barely get the words out.
Many Thousand Oaks residents have expressed similar struggles in dealing with a tragedy that touched so many lives in the community.
Glenn Cohen, a doctor in Thousand Oaks, said one of his employees was at Borderline that night, but hid in the attic and survived. Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, who died in the shooting, was one of Cohen’s patients.
Earlier this year, Cohen’s teenage daughter was at the local mall during a shooting — another incident that shocked families here.
“We live in an area like this — we all call it ‘the bubble’ — because we’re all supposed to be protected and safe,” says Cohen, 52. “We can’t be as naive as we’d like to be.”
When Parks pulls up to Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, she has only a few minutes to get to the funeral. She starts walking rapidly but then slips off her heels and runs barefoot across the campus to the chapel.
She settles into a pew just before the service begins for Justin Meek, who had graduated from the university in May.
Parks knows Meek’s mother because she was at the reunification center. Parks has also seen her attending funerals for the other victims. Today, she sits in the front row.
A local singer, Paige Peel, performs a song about the massacre under the chapel’s stained-glass windows. Parks heard Peel sing the day before, at another service. She can’t listen without crying, she says.
“Why can’t the devil stay in hell where he belongs? And stop trying to settle a deal up here, just move along,” Peel sings. “These aren’t just walls and a door to walk through and take our own. No, this is our home.”
At the end of the service, Parks’ eyes are wet with tears.
“Such beautiful young men and women,” she says of those killed, shaking her head.
Outside the chapel, in the waning afternoon light, Parks watches as Meek’s family releases white doves. She smiles as the birds join together in a flock, flying north.
Parks gingerly steps toward the family. She hugs Meek’s mother, a short blonde woman with a kind face. The mother tells her that as a boy, Meek had a dove named Grace.
As people begin to disperse, the elected officials who attended the service chat with one another. They sat together at two funerals a day earlier, and another the day before that. They’ve never spent this much time together, they joke — they never thought they would have to.
After this is over, they must all get together, says one of the officials. Yes, they’ll do something as a group, perhaps share a meal, says another.
Parks nods, adding, in almost a whisper: “And not be at a funeral.”
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