The Fire in My Backyard

A few months ago, the publisher of this newspaper described evacuating from the fire that destroyed his home in Malibu in 1993. In that column, Mr. York described the helplessness that comes with packing up when you only have a few moments to decide what stays and what goes. Last night, I finally understood that feeling.

As I prepared to depart my home near Downtown Ventura, I frantically glanced around my bedroom and threw a pair of blue jeans, a sweatshirt and my childhood stuffed animal in a bag—hey, this was serious business. A few more moments and I tossed a pair of running shoes, a photograph and the bridesmaid dress I just purchased for my best friend’s upcoming wedding into the bag and I took off. No passport, no jewelry, not even a water bottle. Oops. 

For hours, soot and ash had blown in a blizzard around my 112-year-old craftsman bungalow as wind rattled the windows. When the power went out and our entire world—later, I would learn, from Santa Barbara to Camarillo—was plunged into darkness, I did what any resourceful Millennial would do and I went straight to Twitter, trying to find out the latest. The latest wasn’t good. The fire, which I had initially read about at 500 acres, was now past 2,500 acres and spreading, fast. But at least I had a jump on the breaking news of the fire—most people I knew in Ventura were just learning about the blaze by the time the fire crested the Ventura hills.

My best friend, Lindsay, has been a resident of Santa Paula for years, since she graduated from Thomas Aquinas College. The idyllic white stucco campus, tucked into the mountains between Santa Paula and Ojai, was surrounded by flames by the time she reached out to me at around 7 p.m. letting me know she was evacuating her home, located right off Route 150 on the outskirts of Santa Paula. Lindsay told me flames were visible through the windows of her home when she and her roommates packed up and got out. A naturally anxious person, I was on high alert for the hour it took her to pack up, leave and arrive to the safety of her fiance’s house on the other side of the fire in Ojai. By the time she gave me the all-clear, the fire had more than tripled in size.

By 9 p.m., the sky in Ventura was purple, with a bright, blood red full moon lighting up the empty streets. All of my friends, California natives, assured me (a Michigander by way of New York) a fire could not reach down to my neighborhood, square in the middle of Ventura between Midtown and Old Town. But the pit in my stomach was sinking.

With the power out, I was terrified to drive, but around 11 p.m., with my Twitter feed letting me know the fire was at 10,000 acres and spreading rapidly, I received a phone call from Kevin, my boyfriend of three years. From his house about two miles away, he had been watching the orange glow behind the hills—but suddenly the orange sprang into hot yellow. The hills had erupted into live flames. He was coming to help me evacuate.

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Thirty minutes later, Kev and I stood on the deck of his home near the beach and watched what looked like two of Ventura’s most beloved (and visible) landmarks devoured by flames: Serra Cross (known to locals as Grant Cross) and Two Trees. As the fire crept down the hills, endless rows of headlights funneled out of the neighborhoods and crawled down into the 101 Freeway.

I told Lindsay that I had left my home and let her know I was safe but worried about the fire reaching Ventura. I asked how her friends and college had survived the fire so far. Together, we had no confirmation about friends’ homes destroyed. No confirmation about the Thomas Aquinas campus. No confirmed injuries. No confirmed deaths. But she took one look at the fire map and realized her wedding venue was directly in the middle of the burned area, leaving us little hope it survived the blaze. 

By 12:45 a.m., Kevin and I decided to get out of town.

If you’re at all familiar with the 101 Freeway in the Ventura area, you know that as you head southbound out of downtown, the road curves left just before the 126 interchange, leaving you with a full view of the mountains to your left, beyond a green field and low, tree-lined midtown neighborhoods. The mountains on Monday night were completely engulfed in flame. Ten minutes earlier we had watched yellow and orange light careen gracefully down a ridgeline from our view at the beach. Now the flames came into sharp, zoomed-in focus: Massive balls of fire licked down toward East Ventura and up high into the sky and drivers tapped their brakes to stare in awe at the horrifying beauty of it. 

As we drove south, I noticed traffic stopped on the northbound 101 as a police escort tore down the freeway delivering a caravan of fire engines into the mouth of the now 40,000-acre inferno. We drove on.

Today is Tuesday. I spent last night on the couch of Kevin’s parents’ house, far out of harm’s way. When I woke up after four hours of fitful sleep, I put on my sweatshirt and blue jeans, carefully spread out the crinkled bridesmaid dress across my back seat and drove to Malibu, not knowing yet whether my home was one of the “150-plus” structures estimated destroyed. As I rode down Las Posas Road in Oxnard, through wide green fields of cabbage and strawberry, I kept glancing to my right, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ventura along the edge of the horizon. All that was visible was a monumental plume of gray-black smoke.

Good news: Grant Cross survived the fire—no word on whether Two Trees is still standing

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