One month later. It’s January 5th and it’s a new year. But this year, it’s so much more than that for so many reasons. A month ago, my hometown of Ventura was hit hard by the Thomas Fire. On this day, last month, December 5th, life changed not only for me but for those I love dearly—and unfortunately, to a much greater degree.
I woke up in Concord, Massachusetts that Tuesday and it was 4:30 am on the east coast. I had been speaking the evening prior and was enjoying my stay at the “haunted” Colonial Inn. As I got ready for my flight, it was 1:30 am in California and I figured all my family and friends were fast asleep, getting ready for the Tuesday ahead. I turned on CNN to try and help me wake up and they began reporting on a fire in Santa Paula—my dad’s hometown. Santa Paula is about 20 minutes from Ventura so naturally, I was worried, but I was not gravely concerned at this point.
Not really expecting a response, I texted my dad to say that I heard about the fire. What happened from there was when it all took a turn. My dad responded with a picture of the backyard and said that actually, they were being told to evacuate. WHAT? I started to panic as I was in the Uber ride on the way to the Boston airport. My dad calmed me down (it probably should have been the other way around) and he told me it would be okay. But would it? I also texted my best friend, Lauren, to find out if she was impacted by the recent news. Indeed, her parents were being told to evacuate as well. To top it off, Tuesday was Lauren and my mom’s birthday. Unbelievable.
It killed me to get on that plane from Boston to Chicago. It was horrible not knowing what would happen. Before I boarded the flight to Chicago, we knew the fire was bad but homes were okay at that point. I landed in Chicago finally and made desperate calls as soon as I hit the runway. My parents were officially evacuated and they grabbed everything that they could; documents, our cat, my wedding dress, among other things. At that point, we did not know if our home was okay or not. We all waited minute by minute. I called Lauren and I’ll never forget her saying how unimaginable it would be if her family’s home burned down on her birthday. I remember us saying that it would be impossible. That couldn’t happen. No way.
But it did. The next leg of my flight was from Chicago to LAX and I sat on the plane visibly praying for much of the flight. Social graces were out the window that day. I felt jarred as I could see the giant plume of smoke, even from the air landing into LAX. As soon as we landed, I texted Lauren for an update.
She called me and told me the news, “My parents’ house burned down.”
There are no words to describe the immediate sadness and terror that I felt in that moment. “No, no, no” was all that I could say. I was gripped with an unbearable sadness and I sobbed on the plane (sorry I’m not sorry seat partners). Lauren and I felt angry, shocked, unbelievably sad—how could this happen?? So much was lost; her diplomas, her wedding dress, her pictures, her dolls, (her childhood)—so, so much.
I talked to my parents to find out that miraculously, our home was spared. Every time I drive home, I still feel shocked that it stands, as does our neighborhood. You look across the street from us and the mountain is charred down to the road. The trees now black poles, the birds of paradise are messy stumps, the hillside—a row of chimneys. In many ways, I feel undeserving of having my home still; seeing the Christmas tree, using the Christmas dishes, sleeping in my own bed at home—all of these things that I so very often appreciate but never truly sit with the solidness of it all; until you think about how all of these things have become ashes for so many. I think about how my family was fortunate enough to drive up to a place that stands intact while so many pulled up to nothingness. And like an evil bag of popcorn, the loss feels so random yet realized. It’s hard to sit with.
This month was one of the longest but I know that for those that lost their homes, it felt much longer. Life “goes back to normal” for so many who were nearly impacted but narrowly escaped. Yet for those that lost everything, it has been a tireless effort to find housing, clothing, peace. Essentially, homeless.
I’ve had many emotional reactions during this process. Sadness, depression, angst, fear, numbness. I must say, one of my gripes is when people say, “At least you’re alive. A house is just full of things that can be replaced.” I am thankful to be alive. I am TREMENDOUSLY thankful for the first responders (especially my Uncle Chris who helped my family and so many others in numerous ways). And sure, a fork can be replaced. But those forks that were used around a precious meal that was held every year? That is not so easy to replace. Or what about a coffee mug? Sure, replaceable. But that mug meant many mornings, waking up early while feeding the dog. These “things” held countless memories and even though some may say they don’t matter, they hold so many stories behind them and losing it all feels like a thousand little deaths. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, I’m just mourning the loss of so many “things” that had lives of their own. The Lumieres, Cogsworths, and Mrs. Potts of the world will understand that I hope.
I have this feeling of sadness because losing Lauren’s home felt like losing my own home in a way. Lauren and I have been best friends, like sisters, since we were babies. I grew up in that house. I remember the backyard where we built the fort and where we played on the swing. I remember playing with Barbie dolls in her playroom and stealing Lauren’s mom’s Barbie wedding doll dress (don’t worry, I gave it back when we were 21). I remember stacking pillows in her parents’ bed, building a “ship” and watching the scary Snow Queen movies. Watching Shrek for the first time in the den and laughing hysterically. Playing piano together and learning “Heart and Soul.” Baking cookies in the kitchen. I know that house is well memorialized in my heart and mind but it hurts to know that I can’t go back and see it, feel it, in person anymore.
I suppose it’s taken me a month to get to this place where I can write about the Thomas fire. I don’t think it’s coincidental that I’ve been procrastinating writing and then it dawned on me that I needed to write TODAY. There is still so much healing that needs to be done. This rebuilding is going to take years. I have learned through this tragedy that gratitude and memories are everything. Savoring special moments with people matters. Telling them you love them is everything. When someone asks, “What can I do to help?” it’s better to simply do what you can than ask.
With this new year, I am reminded of how we will always rise up. Ventura is strong and just as our cross still stands, I know our community will, too. I see stories of survivorship everywhere. It’s in the little bunnies (and rats!) that made it and find ways to eat my mom’s succulents (she loves that). It’s people who have been so generous with their time, money, and hearts to help where they can. One story comes to mind particularly, especially being the cat lady that I am.
A group of cats down by Carpentaria used to come to our family friend’s neighborhood every day for food and they would oblige. Sadly, only one cat survived the fire. His paws were charred, his fur burnt, and his little cat face looked sullen. But our family friend scooped him up, took him to the vet, and helped rescue him. They named him Phoenix.
And like Phoenix, we will rise through these ashes and rebuild our hearts and homes. Our homes may have been shaken to the core, but my I know my faith stands stronger than ever. Because for as much devastation as I have seen, I have seen so much more love, compassion, and courage and that, among many other reasons, is why I love Ventura.