As the flames lit up the night sky on December 4th, we watched with horror as a massive wall of red flames burned up over the ridgeline above our town to the east and quickly consumed one home after another in rectangular bursts of fire across on our darkened hillsides, blown by unseasonably hot and dry Santa Ana winds. The aftermath of that night, and for days later as the fires continued to eat up acres of land across two counties, was a calamity that touched all of our lives. Everyone knew someone who had lost his or her home. By the time the fire was completely extinguished a month later, over 281,000 acres had burned making it the largest fire in California’s recorded history. Two people lost their lives. Thousands of people lost their homes. Over 1,000 structures were destroyed in Ventura County alone.
KIRF has been able to help 58 of these families (over 145 people), most with children and renters, get through the experience of losing their homes and belongings in the Thomas fire. Most of the people we helped did not have fire insurance or were underinsured. When we met them, they still seemed in shock. Most owned only the clothes that they were wearing and what they could carry when they were evacuated. They lived in various areas of Ventura County: Ventura, Ojai, and unincorporated areas such as Wheeler Canyon, Adams Canyon, and Upper Ojai.
Each of the families we helped are special to us. They include some of our community’s kindergarten and high school teachers, farm workers, writers, artists, photographers, and musicians, as well as college students and service workers, horse trainers, daycare providers and in-home caregivers. We helped several small business owners with employees to support. The people we helped also included a home architect, a large equipment operator (who helped clean up debris after the flooding in Montecito), a lawyer, and a biologist as well as the people who make us feel and look better: a hair dresser, athletic trainer, and two yoga instructors. Some of them help keep us safe for a living such as the EMT and police officer we helped.
A hundred percent of every donation went to directly to help each of these families in the form of a gift card or supplies that they requested. Since our funds were limited (several times we ran out of money in the first few weeks), people who were renting and/or did not have sufficient insurance were sought out. Parents of school-age children and retired senior citizens were prioritized, too. Each person KIRF helped was referred to us from friends, family members, acquaintances, neighbors, and other Thomas fire disaster survivors. Over 50% of the Thomas fire survivors who we helped ended up referring us to other people who they knew personally and who had also lost their homes. Several people told us that by helping other victims of the Thomas fire, it helped them, too. They included the following amazingly caring people: John, Veronica, Phillipa, Margaret, Julie, Katie, Michael, and Dan.
KIRF’s aid for this disaster has mostly been in the form of $500 gift cards to Target or Walmart. Most of the people we helped did not yet have a permanent place to live and store donated items. We, in turn, referred aid recipients to other aid groups and humanitarians in an informal aid network during the disaster. Local organizations who gave aid to Thomas fire disaster relief recipients through our referrals included Our Lady of Assumption Church, Mission Church Ventura, and Downtown Lions Club. A few local businesses gave merchandise to KIRF aid recipients such as Mile 26, Barrel 101, and Betty Belts to name just a few.
However, Mark and I could not have of done this emergency disaster relief without the hours of volunteer efforts by an informal aid network of volunteers here in Ventura. They spent hours meeting Thomas fire survivors with us and helped us purchase and deliver donated items to many of them. Thank you again for your help Steve, Greg and Sarah, Courtney, Ed, Mike, Miguel, Richard, Erin, Brian, Josh and Jen, Nile, and Kai. We also want to thank our newest KIRF volunteers who took hours of their time to locate, interview, and introduce us to Thomas fire survivors who lost their homes. They include Adrienne, Karen, Barbara, Ken, Linda, and Jeannie. I want to thank two people who connected two of the musicians we helped with new instruments: Suz and Janet. Finally, thank you Cathy for introducing us to Fr. Leon of Our Lady of Assumption Church who gave emergency funds to many of the renters we helped before FEMA and other aid funds became available.
Below are some of the public social media postings (minus the photos for now--ARK) that helped us raise more funds during the disaster period. The first post was a few days after the Thomas fire started on Dec. 4, 2017. Most of them were shared as public posts on KIRF’s Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/KIRFaid/). Each post was made with permission from each KIRF Thomas fire aid recipient.
DEC. 9 2017
We gave another gift card today to a widowed mom with two daughters, 1 yr & 4 yrs. She is trying to stay positive. The photo below is what is left of her house in Wheeler Canyon (between E. Ventura & Santa Paula, north of Hwy 126).…
DEC. 10, 2017
We just got back from giving out two Walmart gift cards for $500 each for two people this morning: Kendra and Alton. They both said I can use their names and photos. We met them with our new friend Dan who lost his home and business equipment in the Thomas Fire. Kendra is a recent college grad who works in a HR dept at a company in Carpinteria. She asked not to share the photo of her burned rental house since it belongs to a well-known local doctor and his wife. But below is a photo of Kendra and I. She is so grateful...!
The other gift card we gave to [is] a wonderful man named Alton who is a retired photographer and remembers Hurricane Camille in 1969 in MS! He’s married to a Cajun lady who grew up hunting and fishing in LA. Loved this guy. Below is a photo of him at his house right after the fire. He is so grateful for the gift card. I a week or so the disaster services and free donated items will be gone but his family will still need things.
Dan (guy we helped on Sat with a gift card), Alton & Kendra have family who are members of Temple Beth Torah. From them we found out that the local evangelical Mission Church Ventura, Catholic Assumption and Temple Beth Torah here in Ventura are helping each other out with sharing donated water and helping each other’s members. Dan, an recent MBA grad who started a business recently & lost all his business equipment in the fire, told me that one of our friends referred him to Assumption. He showed up yesterday ready for the Father to say religious words to him (he’s Jewish). But the priest just handed him a check and said he hopes Dan is doing all right. He was there for less than five minutes... And you can better believe he’s a fan of that local religious community now. But, of course, there are politicians who won’t ever repeat that reality of the people in different faith communities all working together with love ...! But now you and our other donors know. Love wins
DEC. 11, 2017
Thank you KIRF donors so much! We gave another gift card tonight to Erik & Sarah who lost their rented house, no insurance. Erik is an artist who [recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz] and also works for a local organic farm and lost his art and art supplies. Sarah lost everything, too. Thank you for helping this young couple out.
DEC. 12, 2017
Thank you KIRF donors! We gave a $500 gift card to a sweet lady named Joannie who is a retired first grade teacher and world traveler. She lost her apartment, one out of 53 units, in Hawaiian Gardens [Hawaiian Village Apartments] Monday night (Dec. 4). Steve Doll referred her to us. She is really grateful.
DEC. 13, 2017
Hannah, a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica, and her daughter Lily escaped the Thomas Fire in Ojai but their rented home did not. They are couching it at a relative’s house now. We were able to help them with a $500 WalMart gift card to replace some things they lost in the fire…
DEC. 15, 2017
This wonderful human standing in between Mark and I was referred to us by his neighbor Katie who lived on the same property above Foothill in Ventura. He tried hard to save both of their rented houses by staying behind and hosing them down and putting out embers during the fiery windstorm late Monday night. He thought he did, left briefly, and came back to both homes burned to the ground. Lost everything. We used the last $500 in donations we had yesterday to get him a gift card. It’s not much but at least he would be able to replace some things after he finds a new home for himself and his two children… PS: The wonderful human/brave dad’s name is Michael.
DEC. 15, 2017
Mark talked to Robby today about his experiences in the Thomas Fire. He and his girlfriend Lexi narrowly escaped the fire as it descended into the Hawaiian gardens [Hawaiian Village Apartments] and the apartment they were renting there. They were running from flames 30 feet high. Lexi ran through the falling embers in her bare feet…
DEC. 15, 2017
Thank you KIRF donors. Today your donation helped a Thomas Fire refugee and hero named Tanner. He is a paramedic who was off duty and sound asleep when he got a panicked call from an elder care client who told him that he and his wife’s trailer home was was surrounded by fire. He saved the elderly couple and their model home in a park in upper Ojai. Unfortunately, he lost his own home right next door. He was referred to us by fellow Thomas Fire refugee Michael. Below is a photo of Tanner with Mark and a picture of his Jeep on the night of the fire.
DEC. 16, 2017
Hannah and Landon lost their home in the [Harbor View] apartments that burned above Hawaiian Gardens [Hawaiian Village Apartments]. Nothing left. Thank you KIRF donors for helping this nice young couple. 100% of each donation is going by to purchase gift cards or requested home supplies for Thomas fire refugees.
DEC. 19, 2017
At my right shoulder (left side of this photo) is an angel named Phillipa. After the Thomas fire unexpectedly burned down her house in the hillsides of Ventura she asked for help for her preschool students’ families who she knew had lost their homes in the massive brush fire. I met Phillipa through my friend Adrienne at the Ventura Land Trust. I’ve known Adrienne for a while now and if she says someone needs help, I believe her.
Which leads me to mention the other sweet lady on my left: Amber. She’s a busy speech therapist and mother of two energetic little boys who loved to race around their mom’s car in the parking lot when I met them today. She and her husband Nate’s rented home near two trees (now one tree? No tree?) burned down. The fire destroyed everything they owned except their clothes, cell phones, and IDs that they evacuated with. They did not have renter’s insurance…
DEC. 19, 2017
Thank you KIRF donors for making a difference for this lovely and entertaining couple: David and Veronica. Referred to us by Steve, their apartment on the first floor of Hawaiian Gardens burned up was crushed into the ground by the other two stories above it. They were on a travel righting assignment in Cuba and only had with them their passports, warm weather clothing, bike shorts, and a few other things. Veronica lost her grandmother’s heirloom jewelry. David lost two back up drives of digital images of photos he’s taken for the past twenty years of assignments and of his children, etc. The fire was a devastating loss for them both. Unfortunately, all we could do is provide some words of care and a gift card. We referred them to a local religious community who helped them some more. They found an apartment but will need to fill it…
DEC. 21, 2017
It was another emotional night last night meeting these two incredible kind and resilient people: Linda and John. Their apartment in Hawaiian Village, decorated with a lifetime of memories, burned to the ground during the Thomas Fire. Linda seems to be coping well by staying incredibly busy with her work at Granite Construction Since the Thomas fire destroyed about 150 homes in Ventura, I expect she’s going to get even busier. John is retired and I expect dealing with all the paperwork involved in recovering from a disaster—dealing with utilities, insurance, and fema plus medical bills— [that] will keep him busy, too for a while.
I wish we could do more for them. We gave them a $500 Target gift card for some essentials…
DEC. 21, 2017
We visited the Wheeler Canyon Trailer Park, a property owned by Limoneira Company, on Wednesday night (12/20/17). Ten families lost everything they owned when their trailers caught fire and burned into the heaps of charred steal and ashes in the fiery inferno that swept through the canyon carried by the Santa Ana winds on December 4th. Here's a short description of one of those families. [edit added 12/23/17 - ARK]…
It was about dinnertime when we met them at a neighbor's trailer. Ernesto told us in Spanish that their trailer that burned was a new one and they had nice furniture in it and his fish tank. He had raised tropical fish in it for seven years. Gesturing with his hands, he showed us that when he started, his fish were tiny and grew big. He had to get a bigger tank. Now it's all gone. It made me sadder still to hear that the dignified grandfather still has to get up at 4:30am every morning to work in the fields and gets home around 5pm. His wife’s schedule isn’t much easier: she gets up at 6 and gets home around 7pm. They lost nearly all their material possessions but at least, they told us, they still have their jobs and worked earlier that day. Broke but not even close to broken, they were so kind and invited us in and would of fed us dinner, too if we could of stayed.
KIRF donors paid for a Target gift card for this farm worker family. I know that many volunteers from several organizations are working hard to help their hard working community…
DEC. 23, 2017
Today we accepted an invitation to the Christmas party for the farm workers at Limoneira Company. After quietly giving each family who lost their home in the Thomas fire a Target gift card, I learned their story through the Spanish interpreting done by a lovely lady with a beautiful name: Elodia. …Limoneira Company quickly found new housing for them in some vacant trailers in the park.
Unfortunately, for Maria and her family, the fires destroyed her passport and H2A guest worker papers. Her daughter and granddaughter were born here. Even today, two weeks after her home burned down, she seemed scared about what was going to happen next. I don’t blame her frankly. There were counselors from Ventura county behavioral health, LULAC, Red Cross here today to help her and the other families here though. The outpouring of care for these families who work hard, before dawn to dusk, [picking and packing] the produce that we eat is tremendous and reassuring…
DEC. 31, 2017
Today we gave disaster recovery aid in the form of a $500 Target gift card to a young couple, Mikayla & Jake, whose apt in the Harbor View Apts was destroyed by the Thomas fire. The gift card won’t replace the special things but it will at least help them get back on their feet with some essentials. Thank you KIRF donors so much for making a real difference to a young family who lost everything. Thank you for being there for them during what may have been their worst holiday season ever.
JAN. 7, 2018
We were able to help four more former residents of Hawaiian Village apartments yesterday. This was due in part to the generosity of a local farming family with a long history in Ventura County. Each person we helped told us a harrowing story of escaping the fire through smoke and burning embers blowing over them, just ahead of the flames that lit up our hillsides a fiery red and orange.
Each person we helped is connected to a family member or a close friend who also lost their home that night. Left to right are photos of Mark and I with some of them: Angela and her 14 yr old son Walter (they are still living in a hotel), Ryan who lost everything in the fire that he owned since he was busy helping the other residents escape, Patricia who is also living in a hotel with her roommate, and Alex who lost everything except her snowboard and Patagonia gear, a gym bag stuffed with undergarments, and one Ugg boot. None of them had insurance.
We referred them to other disaster services in town and retailers we know who are still donating new clothes and other items to people who lost their homes in the Thomas fire. Each one of them thanked us and our donors.
Each person is dealing with their loss differently: stoicism, keeping extremely busy, feeling numb or waves of grief at different times.
Each person told us how incredibly generous some people who they hardly knew have been to them with free things, a place to live, and cash. They also told us about support of Red Cross, United Way, Our Lady of Assumption, Mission Church Ventura, etc…
JAN. 8, 2018
I thought that the Thomas fire donations would stop coming in after New Years but I was wrong. Sometimes it’s great to be wrong. Yesterday we were able to give a care package of gift cards and cash to the best yoga teacher … Maura.
She used to teach the Wednesday noon yoga class at Patagonia. I was told that she taught this class upstairs in the firehouse building for 25 years. I was also told that she was an amazing yoga teacher. The few times I took her yoga class I became instantly relaxed by her soft-voice as she moved us through the asanas [yoga poses coordinated with breathing] that gently lengthened and soothed our sore muscles in time with our breaths. Her yoga classes were the only time I could truly relax at work …
JAN. 12, 2018
Thank you again KIRF donors! Because of your generosity we were able to help out a dear former co-worker of mine from my years at Patagonia long ago. Margaret and her husband lost their rented home and one of their cats to the Thomas fire in Adams Canyon, which is just past Wheeler Canyon near where the fire started. She sent me before and after photos of their home. They had only about ten minutes to evacuate so they grabbed a few things and their pets, three dogs and the two of their three cats that they could find.
A photo below is all she has left of her jewelry from the fire other than what she was wearing at the time. I looked up the melting temperature of silver on Google. It is 1,763 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything else inside their home was reduced to charred metal and ashes.
Since they lived on county land near Ojai but not in it, they have been denied aid by [some] organizations there. The most aid they got, other than some renters insurance and help from their adult children, was from Mission Church Ventura (no questions asked, just love and aid), Red Cross, and us.
JAN. 24, 2018
Ever meet a couple who are so genuine, so real, and yet so full of positivity and light that you just want them to succeed? I met a couple like that today named Sarah and Eddie. I only spoke with Eddie on the phone but he coordinated a meeting with his wife Sarah.
We were referred to them by my friend Margaret who also lost her home in the massive Thomas fire. I met Sarah tonight after work at Whole Foods near where I teach at College of the Canyons. Sarah and her musician/entrepreneur husband Eddie lost almost everything they owned and Eddie’s work equipment when the Thomas fire burned their rented home to the ground in Upper Ojai. Since they live about a minute from Saint Thomas Aquinas College, near where the fire started and it’s namesake, they had about 15 minutes to get their four children, two cats, and their things in their trucks. They had to use the lights on their cell phones to see after the electricity went out.
They have three little boys who are 9 months, 2 years and 3 years, and one big 11 year old boy who goes to San Antonio Elementary. Their big boy just wants to go back to his old school and is having a rough time his mom told me. He’s in six grade and they hope that they can find a place in or near Ojai so he can finish out the year there. They are currently staying in a spare room at relative’s house in Valencia. Eddie lost his acoustic and bass guitars and his work equipment. They both lost years of their children’s artwork and everything you can think of in a typical house. Sarah worked and got academic-scholarships to pay her way through UCLA and now teaches kindergarten and preschool. Family and friends, have helped them with clothing and bedding etc. [We gave them two Target gift cards worth $1,000.] Now they just [need] a place to stay until this summer at least....
FEB 8, 2018
Thank you KIRF donors! Tonight you made it possible for us to give a $1,000 [worth of] Target gift card to a family who lost their rented home during the Thomas fire here in Ventura and everything in it. It was a devastating loss compounded by the fact that [Guto and Fernanda and their two sons had] just moved to Ventura, far away from the support of family and friends back in their native country of Brazil. They were renting a small back-house on a property along Foothill Ave. with no fire insurance. We met them through our friend Stephen Doll and our new friend Leslie [Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett’s wife] who is hosting them at her and her husband’s home until they can find their own place…Guto was a famous professional motocross athlete in his native Brazil. He and his wife moved to Ventura less than two years ago and started a business. Already their boys are doing great in school speaking fluent English, play on their school’s soccer team, and the older brother plays the tuba. Thank you again for helping this beautiful family during a very hard time for them.
As of now, three months after the Thomas fire started, many of the people who we helped are still trying hard to recover. Ventura County is an expensive place to live. Parents are still helping their children deal with the emotional shock of losing their home and having to move away from their friends and their old school—all the while they themselves are trying to keep things together. People without small children are trying to recover from losing things like their mother’s jewelry, their laptops and backup drives, road bikes and surfboards, their cats, furniture, family recipes, a sense of stability.
The Thomas fire disaster destroyed too much. But survivors will never forget that there were people in this community who stepped up to help them after they lost their homes. The disaster created many unsung heroes and a community of people who have been brought closer together. We have heard several stories of neighbors who risked their lives during the fire to save the lives of their neighbors before first responders arrived and, in the meantime, lost their own homes and belongings. We have heard stories of neighbors putting out spot fires with shovels of dirt and keeping the roofs of their neighbor’s roofs wet after they evacuated during the hot windstorm that blew burning embers hundreds of yards ahead of the flames, igniting trees and brush. We heard stories about people saving their neighbors’ horses and livestock, while their own homes burned to the ground. We have also heard stories about people who, after the fire, tracked down their neighbors who had lost their homes so they could help them. Some of them shared their own homes with victims until they could find an affordable place to live. I have heard of at least two musicians who donated their guitars to musicians who they didn’t know but found out about through mutual friends. We heard stories of women giving their Thomas fire survivor friends some of their jewelry since they had lost theirs in the fire. We even heard a story about a friend who took off her sneakers and gave them to a friend who lost her home. She had rushed out of her house so fast that she forgot to pack her shoes.
These Thomas fire survivors will never forget the many heroes in our community. These are average people who took action to help. We certainly will not. After over 10 years of doing disaster relief in different communities all over the world, it’s a humbling experience to have our own community—our own friends, neighbors and loved ones--suffer a terrible catastrophe and lose their homes. To those who helped out, you have made our whole community better and stronger. Thank you!
Angela R. Kirwin, M.A.