Memoirs take very different forms, follow a variety of paths and themes, and tell a multitude of stories. Usually, they involved the past being brought to the present. Sometimes, however, that past is not very far away and they tell the beginning of a memory. In other words, the memory is within days, hours, minutes, or moments of when it occurred. Today I’ve been watching what will someday be expressed as a “Remember when…”
Remember when all those houses burned in that terrible fire in 2017, probably the worst fire ever in Ventura, CA.
Last night about nine o’clock the lights flickered. A couple minutes later they flickered again. Then they went out, the computer screen in front of me turned black, the printer clunked, the room went dark and quiet. Perhaps I should have turned the computer, the printer, and the lights off to avoid that shock that happens to the computer, the printer, and me when the power returns. I didn’t. I sat cursing for a moment and waited. Often when the power goes down it returns a minute or two later. It didn’t. So, I stumbled around, heading for one of the places I keep a flashlight. Just as I got there the lights, computer and printer went back on. I returned to the computer. I’d barely sat down when the lights went back out. Damn, I thought.
During the past couple months, there have been a number of power outages here. Three of them were scheduled, starting between 8 and 9 at night on a predetermined day and lasting until somewhere between 2 and 5 in the morning. Not terrible. Not curse-worthy. Irritating.
Three other power outages were not scheduled. They might have been related to the scheduled outages, but last night it didn’t matter. I had no idea what was going on so it was easiest to blame Southern California Edison (SCE) and use words like terrible or worst or incompetent. After the power went out for the fourth and final time last night I used my cell phone to post this on Facebook.
#SCE has to be about the worst electric company in the country. In the past month, we have had ten power outages: three of them scheduled, seven of them unplanned, and four of those have happened tonight. Here’s a picture of the way my world looks right now!
That was about nine-thirty. Not more than a half hour later a friend called asking if I’d heard about the fires in Santa Paula that were “spreading all over the place” including toward Ventura. She said people near her (much closer to Santa Paula than I was) were evacuating. Although she wasn’t going anywhere she’d packed a bag in case the fire got too close. There are many streets between the house where I live and the usual paths a wildfire might travel so I didn’t think it was necessary to either evacuate or pack a bag. However, this news of fires had me thinking they might be related to the power outage. So, again I opened Facebook on my iPhone and posted this…
****** Apparently the problem may not one with SCE. There appear to be two problems in the area: strong winds and the fires. Either one of them could have caused the electrical outage we are experiencing right now.
When my morning iPhone alarm called me at 6:30, the power was still off. I got up anyway, headed to the kitchen, checked to make sure the stove still worked (it did with the help of a match), and pulled some stuff for breakfast from the refrigerator. Back in the bedroom, I dressed, the stepped into the bathroom to washed my face, drag a comb across my head, brushed my teeth, and take my meds. A minute or so later I was looking out the window at the orange sky in the distance and the microwave beeped as my alarm radio clicked, and the night lights went on. After turning on the computer (I don’t have a TV), I found the L.A. CBS TV news site and clicked their red button that says, “Watch and Listen Live.” The reporters were talking about the Thomas fire, a fire that had spread a distance of 20 miles from Santa Paula to Ventura in a few hours. Then they talked about the 200,000 people in Ventura who were without power.
Opening Facebook I posted again…
***** Looks like I misspoke. When you don’t have power you don’t know how bad it is. More than 200,000 other people were without power. Considering that, SCE did an excellent job getting the power back online for more than 180,000 of us within 10 hours.
I have a second iPhone morning alarm that goes off 45 minutes after the first (if I’m going to snooze, nine minutes is not enough). Turning off the alarm I noticed a text from the friend who’d called me the night before…
First, it might have taken more than a couple hours to go from a very controllable but unknown fire to 30,000 acres but within 4 – 6 hours it had spread from Santa Paula to within a few blocks of downtown Ventura. Second, I should carefully proofread my texts because there’s a sentence where I said, “All of Santa Paula, some of Ojai and your area of Ventura are threatened.” Third, I didn’t know how far into Ventura the fire had gone. Fourth, after having seen the power pop off and back on several times, ten hours ago and knowing the fires were still burning in places where there could have been lines bringing electricity into Ventura, I wasn’t too confident the power would remain on. In fact, as I type this I’m afraid the power could go off at any second. When it went off last night I was writing a date-specific blog post. I’m not sure what to do with the post now, but it’s scheduled for December 4th, 2018.
I continued sending texts to her throughout the day to keep her updated.
iPhone’s mistranslated what I said in the first text above. I’d said, “Where you live is not in an evacuation area yet.” Iphone’s ears must have been clogged because it heard, “Where you live is not vacuolation aria yet.” I should consider myself lucky the phone didn’t re-correct my ‘correction’ to something like, ‘ejaculation area yet.’
Even though a couple hours had passed, I still didn’t know the fire had long ago moved deep into Ventura and far beyond Ventura High School. There were stories about fires burning in Santa Paula and along Foothill Road about a half mile into Ventura, but nothing yet about fires deep into the city. The TV report at the time said 150+ buildings had burned, but what I was watching showed at least 10 structures burning so I put 150 and 10 together. That, of course, equaled 200.
Since I was keeping my friend up to date it seemed only fair I should do the same for my Facebook friends and family…
The power is back on. The wind is still blowing things around on the patio. The fire is a couple miles from the area of Ventura where I used to live, but about five miles from where I am.
It was almost 9:30 and I was just beginning to realize how terrible a disaster this was. As a famous reporter uttered back in 1937 as he watched a similar, yet very different disaster unfold…
“It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it’s… [unintelligible] its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it… it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity!” — Herbert Morrison, Transcription of WLS radio broadcast describing the Hindenburg disaster.
Arroyo Verde Park is one of the larger parks in Ventura. It’s at the bottom of a small valley. A couple great hiking trails go around the park on the hillsides and at the top there are houses. Some of those houses
were about to catch fire. The fire department’s goal was to keep the fire on the north side of Foothill Drive. The fire knew nothing about that plan. First, it jumped the road to grab a single house about a quarter-mile from Arroyo Verde. Then, apparently liking what it had done, it jumped across Foothill again about at the entrance to Arroyo Verde Park and burned six more houses on the east side of Foothill.
The 126 is Highway 126 between Ventura, Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Castaic. When I started watching the CBS coverage of the Thomas fire another small fire, the Creek Fire, was also being mentioned. It appeared to be the major concern of both the L.A. ABC and NBC stations, perhaps because it was closer to Los Angeles in Sylmar, CA, 70 miles from Ventura. A small fire, 200 acres, it seemed very controllable. However, the Santa Ana winds rarely let any Southern California fire be controllable. That 200-acre fire quickly grew into a 1,000-acre fire, but unlike Ventura’s Thomas fire spreading west, the Creek Fire was spreading south. It would eventually damage more than 50 homes and a horse ranch in four different communities over a distance of 11 miles. The I5 was closed because of the Creek Fire and another fire near Hwy 126, the Rye fire, newly formed and less than 200 acres in Castaic.
Every half hour or so there was a news story about 3 – 6 more houses being destroyed in Ventura. To me the fire seemed to be marching closer to a house on Poli St. where I once lived (Poli is the name of Foothill when the street makes a slight turn in Ventura). Again, I did not know the fire had sent a scouting party into Ventura late the night before. I realized my mistake about the fire after seeing two things on CBS. First there was a shot from a helicopter that scanned the hillsides above Ventura. The shot began at the Ventura Botanical Gardens which cover the hillsides above the San Buenaventura Mission in downtown Ventura and I noticed some black near the Gardens. However, because it hadn’t been mentioned I thought it was just a stray brush fire. Then I was able to put one and one together when a reporter told the Hawaiian Village story, a 53 unit apartment building that caught fire about midnight and burned to the ground well before sunrise.
It turned out the firefighters hadn’t quite contained the fire to just that complex. All those houses you see around it went untouched, but out of the picture are a couple houses that got touched. One of the houses belonged to a friend of my daughter. During the years I’ve lived in Ventura, I’d often noticed Hawaiian Village, it could be seen from the ocean, and I thought it would be a great place to live especially because of its ocean views and proximity to downtown.
Just before Thanksgiving, there were a number of major fires in Central California, in and around Napa Valley. 42 people died because of those fires. While the destruction caused by today’s fires is considerable, the bodily harm caused is small. A firefighter was injured this morning and released in the afternoon, a few people were injured in car accidents while fleeing the fires, and a few people were treated for burns – none of them considered serious, but no one has died.
Meanwhile, the Thomas fire had grown to more than 50,000 acres, the Creek Fire to more than 11,000, the Rye fire to more than 5,000, and now there was a new fire, the 100 acre Little Mountain fire near San Bernardino. When I sent that text one of the CBS reporters mentioned five fires, but the Santa Paula and Ventura fires were two legs of the Thomas fire that started near Thomas Aquinas College, about six miles north of Santa Paula in Ojai. The first direction the fire took was south before it took a left turn when it reached Santa Paula. At that time with the fire heading both south and west, it could have gone in any direction, including toward the subdivision where my friend lives.
I’ve run a few chores since I began writing this so a few hours have passed and it’s getting dark. The helicopters that joined the fight about 3 pm are back on the ground and the firefighters are getting a little rest because the flames have subsided. Still, there are many small uncontained fires still burning between Santa Paula and Ventura. The embers left from the burned brush, trees, and buildings are in many cases, still smoldering. The hills north of Ventura are still on fire.
And this is what you are likely to see looking toward Ventura from the Pacific Ocean.
So, as this day of the worst fire I’ve ever been close to comes to a close I’m reflecting on some of what’s happened. I’ve heard many sad stories today.
- The family expecting a New Year’s baby who lived in a house for two days before it burned to the ground.
- The Green Bay Packers fan who may have moved here just two months ago, because he and his family lived in their brand new house just two months before the fire took it down.
- The woman who saw news reports of her neighborhood and saw that while three of her neighbors’ houses sadly caught fire and burned for a few hours but hers was untouched. So, she headed home only to see her house in flames when she got there.
- The family who tried to save “Grandma’s house” to no avail because the fire attacked it with too much intensity. The destruction of the Vista del Mar psychiatric hospital on Seneca Street on Ventura’s west side. Here’s a picture of it before it burned.
Then there were the ‘good’ stories.
- The reporter who was not a horse owner and had never even ridden a horse, but helped rescue some horses from a barn that had caught fire.
- The firefighters who managed to save houses next door to other houses that burned to the ground even though the wind appeared to be blowing the flames and embers toward those adjacent houses.
- The homeowner who was told there was time to save just one thing from his house, so he chose the Christmas tree.
- The Santa Clause who showed up at one of the evacuation centers in Ventura at the County Fairgrounds to entertain the 400 evacuees and children there.
I feel very sorry for those who lost so much. I found myself crying for them more than once. While I may not know any of the people whose homes burned today, I’ve followed their stories. It has been a terribly sad day for my daughter who was good friends with six of the people who lost their homes.
A terrible day is, of course, relative. Seven years ago I was in a hospital bed after having almost died during a 12-hour operation that was supposed to have taken three or four hours. It didn’t go well for either the doctor or for me. As miserable as I felt laying there wondering what was wrong with my eye, feeling pain on the left side of my face, and waiting for the nurse to come in to change my I.V.; I watched the news coverage of a disastrous earthquake in Haiti that left 230,000 people dead and millions homeless. People were digging through the rubble of what had been their homes. They had little to eat. It was winter and they had little heat. Their drinking water was diseased. I knew no matter how bad I felt, there was no way I would want to trade places with any of them.
This was not the worst day for fires in California. I’ve already mentioned the fires in Central California that burned more than 5,000 homes. There was also the 2007 fire season, That’s when I received my baptism in the real disasters of California.Before I moved here from the Midwest people asked if I was worried about earthquakes and tsunamis. However, earthquakes have been a minor concern. I’ve felt three 4.5 earthquakes in the time I’ve been here, but in 2007 there were 20 major fires in California. On one day in Southern California, there were 17 separate major fires burning. One Sunday morning, I got a call from a friend who said she was packing because one of those fires was burning across the street from where she was living in Moorpark, CA. Two days later I watched from my workplace in Simi Valley as the flames of one of those fires raced across the mountains on the south side of the town. The next morning as I walked my dogs I marveled at the glow of another fire that was burning the same hills in Ventura that were burned today but with much less damage back then. Later I wiped about a quarter inch of ash from all those fires off my car. It was faintly reminiscent of the snow I used to scrape off my car during the winter back in the Midwest. 203 people were injured in those fires of 2007, 17 others died. About a million people had to evacuate their homes and thousands of them saw their homes destroyed.
Nevertheless any day someone loses the place they live, is a sad day. While it’s good they are still alive and the place and things they lost may in some way be replaceable, they are still lost. They were pictures, mementos, toys, and other things that were important enough just to have; to hang on a wall; to place on a table, desk, or shelf; to put in a container, box, or drawer. They are the things we attach our lives to and represent some bit, some part, some moment of our life. When they are taken away find ourselves unattached like boats in a storm, floating aimlessly across a body of water until somehow we scrabble back to shore where we can start over again, aware of our loss, but also know we have survived and can begin again.