Uncertainty and helping hands
by Michael Sullivan

Stephanie Briggs and Tom Nielsen

Stephanie Briggs, 51, of Mira Monte, with her husband, Tom Nielsen, and her father, Raymond Roberson, 78, arrived at the American Red Cross evacuation center at the Ventura County Fairgrounds around 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 5. She had pocketed a few trinkets, some necklaces and a flower hair clip; at least two pieces were from her best friend, Debra, who had died rather suddenly last year three weeks after her second diagnosis with breast cancer. Briggs had also grabbed a necklace with a glass pendant that had ashes of her mother. She had waited a day before evacuating, but when she could feel the heat from the fire at her home as it burned a nearby hillside, she decided it was time to go. Her father, who was born on Creek Road in Ojai, which is and has been an evacuation boundary, had been reluctant to leave his apartment, but Briggs didn’t want to take any chances.

“We gotta go now,” Briggs recalled telling her father, noting she grabbed her father’s mandolin and harmonica before leaving. The fire was half a mile away. “We gotta get the fuck out of here.”

Residents evacuate from Ventura Avenue on Monday evening.

She was able to fuel up her truck about three-quarters of a tank before the power went out on the way to the fairgrounds.

As Briggs teetered emotionally, quivering on the verge of tears and laughing at the chaos and uncertainty of it all, she spoke of the viewing of her beloved friend who had just died a week before. Her friend, who had been in and out of homelessness in Ventura, was to be cremated that day.

“Really?” she said, rhetorically, about the irony.

There was no way to know if her house would survive, but she was in, more or less, good spirits. At that time, at least 100 structures had been claimed by the fire, though some estimates were as high as 400 and 50,000 people had been evacuated. On Dec. 6, she returned home to find it intact and her chickens had survived as well.

Briggs was one of the more talkative evacuees at the center while the volunteers were busy providing whatever they could, from water and food to blankets and phone chargers.

Tommy D. of Ventura

Tyler D., 23, who lives on Kimball Road in Ventura and works for Mac-Lynn Construction, said that his boss called the day off to help at the center. With Mac-Lynn Construction of Ventura came eight volunteers and four trucks to help transport items around the fairgrounds, including cots when the evacuation center moved to a larger facility on site.

“This is my home and I want to protect it any way I can,” said Tyler, who said he moved from Orange County three years ago. He said that he was impressed by so many people coming together, even young people — he mentioned 13-year-old volunteers. He brought up some of the harder times.

“Saddest thing I have seen, eyes that have been crying,” he said, noting that they were like “ghosts, devastated.”

Fire Watch
by Chris O’Neal

At approximately 11:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 4, a rapture-level knock came to the front door. My neighbor Brian had dropped in to tell us that the hillside was on fire and that they were evacuating. A look to the right confirmed: The flames were tall and stretched along Grant Park. We left at midnight.

View from California Street of City Hall as the Ventura Botanical Gardens burn.

We weren’t the only ones, of course. As of Wednesday, Dec. 6, according to CAL FIRE, 50,000 have been evacuated with mandatory evacuation zones stretching from east to west end of Ventura and throughout Ojai due to the Thomas Fire, a 65,000 acre wildfire, 0 percent contained and still growing.

In Ventura, evacuees were directed to the Ventura County Fairgrounds. On Tuesday afternoon, the Judge William P. Clark Livestock Center was teaming with area residents forced from their homes, as well as volunteers from across the county and beyond.

Joe Rodriguez, 48, lives off Olive Street near Stanley Avenue in Ventura. On Monday night, he took his wife, son and mother-in-law to the fairgrounds along with most of the Westside Ventura area. Rodriguez walked gingerly on a sore knee.

Joe Rodriguez

“I haven’t seen something like this since Iraq,” said Rodriguez, gazing over the sea of cots strewn with personal items. Rodriguez said that he was amazed by what he saw when he and his family arrived at the Fairgrounds. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, all of these people helping out.”

On Tuesday, Marissa Blanchard, 23, and Arlyn McGuire, 23, were among the volunteers. Both residents of Camarillo, the pair had made their way to Ventura to help in whatever way they could. The duo took a short break to fuel with Clif Bars and fruit, and McGuire took a moment to reflect on why he had come.

“I wanted to give back to the community,” said McGuire, and Blanchard echoed the sentiment.

Several Ventura County employees noted that the evacuees are going to remain in shock for several days. Regardless, the mood at the fairgrounds was positive, they said. In the late afternoon, as children ran between the temporary beds, Santa Claus paid a visit, bringing cheer for the holiday season.

Marissa Blanchard and Arlyn McGuire

Other evacuees ended up far away from the city.

On Monday evening, Ricky Virtue, 31, and Elly Virtue, 30, decided to travel north after evacuating from their Kalorama Street home. Later that night, the apartments above their own residence would go up in flames — the Hawaiian Village Apartments, totally destroyed, as well as the Harbor View Apartments, which were a mostly complete loss, just a block from their home.

Ricky says that choosing to leave on Monday night was a no-brainer.

“Maybe if I was single and it was just me, I might have stayed,” said Ricky, “But when you have a partner in life that you can’t imagine something bad happening, my only priority was getting out safely.”

Ricky and Elly’s evacuation took them north in search of power and fuel. First to Carpinteria, then to Santa Barbara and finally to Goleta, where coincidentally, Ricky’s childhood friend, who is now a Santa Barbara County Sheriff, directed them to the next city with services: Buellton. The couple has stayed there since Monday evening. (My own wife and I who, also coincidentally, met the same sheriff and arrived at the same hotel within minutes of Ricky and Elly, stayed on Monday night and returned on Tuesday.)

Elly says that escaping from Ventura was a troubling experience.

“It was like something out of Dante’s Inferno, the only thing I could liken it to,” said Elly. “The smoke, the embers falling on us, with the police and fire and then just the citizens, it was kind of like chaos.”

Ricky and Elly were married on July 15 at Grant Park, where the Thomas fire scorched the Mission Cross and charred the hillside. Ricky and Elly will return to the city on Thursday morning not knowing what to expect, and have already booked a local hotel.

“We are not looking forward to seeing the damage,” said Ricky. “It’s going to be tough, we love that city. Ventura is a very tight knit community, so we will get through it.”