Landmarks in ashes, and of memory, confront fire victims in a traumatized Ventura
Two weeks after the Thomas fire, nearly everyone in Ventura has a story to tell. With more than 500 homes lost and 27,000 residents evacuated, no one is a stranger to this disaster.
They turn to one another in restaurants and diners, checkout lines and the post office and share their stories as if words could lay a foundation for their new lives.
Initially they asked, “Did you lose your home?” Now it’s, “How are you doing?” in an understanding that possessions matter less than concerns of the heart.
They reply with expressions of solace and are surprised at how banal words sound in the aftermath of such devastation. So they speak with gestures, bringing to ordinary interactions — turning left, queuing for coffee, greeting one another — a courtesy and patience that had gone missing from their lives.
The residents of Ventura know they are lucky. Their city did not become another Santa Rosa with its myriad tragedies, but then again, they also know that not everyone in Ventura is feeling especially lucky.
For the families who lost their homes, the slow accounting of their new lives has begun without the familiar landmarks. Trajectories changed, priorities upended, they toggle between past and present, caught between old habits of reference and the world they now inhabit.
They believed they would be safe. They never imagined a fire like this would darken these December blue skies.
Sparked in Santa Paula and pushed by Santa Ana winds, the Thomas fire streaked along the southern slopes of Sulfur Mountain. Consuming an acre a second, it crossed 11 canyons before reaching eastern Ventura late on the night of Dec. 4.
Lunches had been made, school clothes laid out. Tomorrow would come soon enough: jobs to go to, errands to run. Most had heard of a fire to the east and were worried about their distant neighbors.
And they turned out the lights.
Then came the robocalls, the pounding on front doors, the urgent texts, bullhorns in the street.
The power was out. With headlamps and flashlights, they wrestled pets and grabbed whatever they could, ever mindful of Santa Rosa.
They left under an amber glow and drove away, shocked by the sight of their city under siege.
Days later, they shared the images on their phones, digital keepsakes of that terrible night: fire on the slopes, fire in the botanical gardens, fire going through homes.
Later still, they pulled on booties, gloves and masks and combed through the ashes, finding a cup adorned with cracks, a knife blade missing its wooden handle, a piece of wedding china.
They joked that they planned to start decluttering their lives or that they wanted their kitchen remodeled. But no one laughed.
Living now in hotels or vacation rentals, with family, friends or in trailers, they wait for the day they will wake up and not wonder where they are.
“What is lost is predictability and routine,” said Lisa Hochberg-Miller, rabbi at Temple Beth Torah. “Our days have become unmoored.”
Hochberg-Miller didn’t lose her home, unlike 12 members of her congregation. One family, she said, lost two homes, one belonging to a grandparent and one to their children.
Nan Waltman and Hal Nachenberg’s home of nearly 25 years burned. They had purchased it for $300,000 and raised their daughter in it. It is — no, they correct themselves — it was their dream, and they were most proud of the remodeling they had done and the ocean views from most rooms.
Until Saturday, they were prevented from going into their neighborhood. The National Guard had maintained a roadblock to all but emergency and service vehicles working to repair melted water and gas mains and power lines.
In their 70s, the couple are committed to rebuilding but find themselves in a no-man’s land, filled with regret for not taking more with them — a hard drive with photos, a cousin’s paintings — and uncertain what to do next.
“You know how time speeds up when you get older?” Waltman said. “Well, now, time just slowed down. Each day feels so long.”
They want to resume their familiar routine, which they never thought would slip away from them. Wildfires have threatened Ventura before.
In 2005, the School Canyon fire scorched 3,700 acres north of downtown and drew more than 1,200 firefighters, who kept the blaze from reaching the hillside homes.
Twelve years earlier, the Steckel Park fire charred 23,000 acres near Santa Paula. Driven by Santa Ana winds, it frightened some Ventura residents to hose down their roofs; no homes were lost.
They believed this time would be no different.
“I feel like I’m spinning,” said Jeff Jacobson, sitting in his backyard with its smoke-smudged views of Ventura and the Oxnard Plain. “I’m overwhelmed and stressed, which is hard because I need to be clear-minded.”
The fire didn’t completely level his home. Through its charred walls, he can make out the blackened wrest plank of his player piano. His neighbors’ homes are mostly intact. He was unlucky to have an ember land on his house.
Calm and soft-spoken, Jacobson concedes to occasional anger, anger that he can’t go to this closet anymore and grab his favorite sweater, anger that he suspects his home might have been saved.
On that Tuesday morning two weeks ago, flames rising 3 feet off the roof, he approached one of the 50 firefighters on the street, who told him that they would have to let the home burn.
“Why?” Jacobson asked.
“The hydrants are dry,” he was told — too much demand throughout the city — and they didn’t want to use the water in their trucks on a home so far gone.
He asked them to call for a pump, so they could retrieve water from a neighbor’s pool.
“We don’t have one.”
“Could you just call?”
Within 10 minutes, a pump had been found, and the firefighters were throwing water on his home. They saved his garage.
He wondered what would have happened if he had spoken sooner.
Today he and his two daughters — Emma, 19, and Olivia, 16 — have moved into a rental not far from the high school and converted the dining room into a third bedroom. They are slowly making concessions to the changes in their lives.
But it’s been challenging. The fire erased the mementos of his girls’ youth, scattering memories, as Jacobson sees it, “like pieces of a puzzle.” With almost a fondness, he recalls the night the three of them evacuated. He could have stayed and played the hero, tried to save the home, but chose instead to be with them.
Sleeping that night in a Fry’s parking lot — he in the Ford Explorer, they in a travel trailer — he felt safe and secure, knowing they were safe and secure.
Now the clock is running. Most insurers cover two years of rent and give homeowners two years to replace their belongings. Those who are displaced feel the pressure. With all the damage and the work that lies ahead, they anticipate a bottleneck of demolition and construction.
They put together lists: Call the assessor. Stop at the bank. Talk to the insurance adjuster. Tally everything that they have lost.
And make runs to Target and try not to be too discouraged as other shoppers pick up stocking stuffers and ugly Christmas sweaters while they’re buying underwear and toiletries.
But that’s how it is right now: each day bringing a reminder of what they’ve lost.
No wonder they talk so easily about family members who recently died, about cancer diagnoses and relapses, about childhood illnesses. The vulnerability they feel today has opened up older wounds and fears.
Sitting on her aunt’s sofa, 11-year-old Rachel Lipscomb buried her face into her father Jeff’s shoulder as she quietly cried. These reminders are almost more than she can bear. Jeff puts an arm around her.
Rachel tried to explain. She and her mom, Colette, had gone into town earlier in the day, and when they returned, they drove past the street they usually turn left on.
“Oh, we’re not going home,” said Rachel, recounting her surprise, “and then I remembered all over again that my house burned down.”
The memory sets others memories into motion: her Harry Potter collection, gone; her stuffed dog with the Santa hat, lost; and her silk dresses, burned — almost 10 of them — purchased by her parents in Guangzhou, China, when she was adopted. She especially liked the black one with the butterflies on it.
“I want to know who I am,” said Rachel, who feels the fire had set her back.
Burning more than just homes and possessions, the Thomas fire has robbed residents of their identities and upset the careful balance of family life. Estrangements arise over different reactions to sudden change in their lives.
“The totality of the loss makes this different from an illness or an accident,” said Hochberg-Miller. “If you have a family member who is sick, you have family members who can ground them and be their roots. But when everyone is affected, everyone is impacted. Who will be the strong one to hold the pain for the other members of the family?”
Families in Ventura are still working that out.
There are lessons in all of this, they say, and they try to find them.
“We have to be open to accept the world as it is, not how we want it to be,” said Barbara Brown.
Brown sat with her husband, Bert Van Auker, and their dog Rebel in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza hotel, where they took residence after being evacuated and learning that their home was lost. Outside, smoke from the still-burning fire snaked into Ventura, bringing a sweet acrid reminder. White ash, powdery as a moth’s wings, drifted through the air.
The couple recently canceled their January trip to China and are now debating whether they’ll come out of retirement.
Those who lost their homes find themselves second-guessing their hurried decisions. Most of all, they wish they had taken the threat of the fire more seriously.
Van Auker thinks about Barbara’s paintings. They fled in their PJs with only their dog, four boxes of photographs and his bike. A former Ventura County firefighter, Van Auker thought they would return.
“We loved our home for the trees, the serene quality of the place,” said Brown, president of the Ventura Botanical Gardens, which was lost as the fire advanced on City Hall.
When Brown walks through her home in her memories, she stops in the living room where they had hung the painting of the woman in the red floral kimono that she had recently finished. The canvas, a full-sized portrait in the manner of her teacher John Nava, had taken her two years.
Van Auker has a photo of it on his phone. The woman’s arms are raised over her head “as if in supplication,” Brown said.
“We now have to do that,” she said. “We have to give up the life we had in order to have a new one.”
For now, what’s left is to grieve for the loss of paintings and photos, merit badges and wedding dresses, jewelry and the heirlooms to be passed onto children and grandchildren.
And to rebuild trust in the expectations of everyday life.
In the Lipscomb household, it meant purchasing three lunch bags with Velcro closures for Rachel and her brothers just like they had.
At a local diner, it means buying meals for the firefighters, who in turn buy meals for those who have lost their homes.
At intersections, brightly colored poster boards thank firefighters and first responders. Above Highway 126 hangs a “Ventura Strong” banner.
“Nature is amoral,” Hochberg-Miller said . “Our humanity is defined by how well we respond to others.”
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