Lucas Zucker picked me up at LAX around midnight on January 11. I opened the back door and tossed my bag on some picket signs and clipboards and grabbed a box off the front passenger seat that had once been full of N95 respirator masks.
By the time I landed, the fire had burned for 39 days, destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged 280 more; over 100,000 people had to at one point or another evacuate; the brushfire would go down as the largest in state history. A rainstorm that bore down just as the fire receded sent a river of boulders and debris through Montecito, damaging 460 homes, destroying 73 more, and leaving 20 bodies dead in the mud.
I’d heard about the fire in my hometown while on a business trip in Bangkok. When I messaged Lucas, one of my closest friends, he reported bluntly: “This shit is fucking terrifying.” When I called my mother, to tell her I wanted to come and stay until the crisis was over, she told me her home was already full. In her trailer in a retirement community on the east side of Ventura, she harbored my grandmother, my sister, her fiancé, (along with his mother, father and a friend who happened to be partying with them when the fire broke out), five of my nieces and nephews, and my aunt and uncle. There were also three dogs and two cats.
The pictures of the fire were otherworldly. Palm trees burst into flames, mountains engulfed and reduced to smoldering embers. Firefighters have a word for what was happening in the hills, where every last blade of grass was eradicated by fire: moonscaping.
Southern California is defined by its disasters: devastating earthquakes, years-long droughts followed by torrential storms, Santa Ana winds and wildfire. But many people in Ventura lack the resources or political clout to absorb the impact of a disaster like the Thomas Fire. This is not Bel Air or Santa Monica. And while the scenic foothills and beach-front communities are havens for the wealthy—from Patagonia’s Yvonne Chouinard to David Murdock, the $2.6 billion-valued real estate titan tied to the Dole Fruit company—by-and-large, the valleys and alluvial plains are a confluence of first- and second-generation Latino immigrants, migrant farmers, oil field roughnecks and other cross-sections of the working class. This is a place referred to by some locals as Ventucky, or Bakersfield-by-the-Sea.
In typical American fashion, this broad social geography isn’t fully reflected in the political landscape, contributing to a sort of myopia among local politicians regarding the needs of the most vulnerable members of the community. This became plain as the county’s emergency plan went into effect in the early days of the fire. Within 24-hours, it was obvious that the most basic and essential prophylactic measures had not been taken into consideration. As a result, the effects of the fire weren’t felt equally. Certain communities—Spanish-speaking immigrants, agricultural workers, were especially affected. As Lucas put it, “Nothing reveals ugly truth like disaster.”
As smoke filled the air, people rushed to stores to buy the N95 masks. Regular dust masks or handkerchiefs were useless against the thick plumes of smoke and ash. Within days local emergency rooms were filling with patients with breathing problems. Ventura County, which is situated on the edge of the fire-prone chaparral and has been in the most prolonged and severe drought in the entire state, was unprepared, only launching public mask distributions about a week into the fire.
As a grassroots organizer, Lucas had been working with others through the fire to figure out whose needs had been neglected, and what could be done to help them. Amid the chaos, he found one constant truth: “The hillside homeowners will rebuild—no matter how bad an idea it might be—they’ve got insurance, FEMA, benefit concerts. The immigrant families in the flatlands below who cleaned their houses and trimmed their gardens, they’re excluded from federal aid and disaster unemployment. The farmworkers out in the fields have no choice but to work all day breathing in that cancerous smoke.”
Lucas looked exhausted as he drove down the Conejo Grade and through the fields, bringing the lights of Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura into view, with a stream of red brake lights running like a current through the sea of farmland. The 101 cuts through the celery and strawberry fields of Camarillo and Oxnard, lit up in spots by old farmhouses or random streetlights. You could watch how land value rose by seeing what was being planted in a field. Lemon groves would eventually be replaced with strawberries, a more valuable crop per-acre (provided you have an abundant source of cheap labor). And what was once a strawberry field would become 200-acres of single-family houses. Ventura still has about a one-to-one ratio of farmland to developed land per-acre, but that is changing. Since the fire broke, the organization he works for had been trying to make sure that the rights of farmworkers were being protected, and that people in high-risk areas had access to essentials—masks, water, food. Lucas’s organization, the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) works with other local immigrant rights groups like Future Leaders of America (FLA), and the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), to respond to the needs of the Latino people that make up forty-percent of the county, including most of the 35,000 farmworkers that harvest the county’s 100,000-plus acres of avocados, lemons, strawberries and other crops every year—worth 2.1 billion dollars.
The power went out on December 4. Just after Neal Andrews was sworn in as Ventura’s new mayor, he walked down the steps of City Hall and watched the power go out across town. The outage affected hundreds of thousands of people across western Ventura County and southern Santa Barbara County—a failure caused by the region’s centralized power grid, dependent on a handful of power plants located in Oxnard, the region’s largest concentration of both pollution and poverty. The power lines snake through the mountains and forests, and can spark wildfires when they are brought down by the Santa Ana winds.
Hours later, the fire would be licking at the fence-line of the City Hall backlot.
“Make sure you understand this or have someone explain to you.”
That was the only line written in Spanish, affixed to the top of the first fire warning that that the city posted on their website and Facebook page on December fifth. The warning itself was written in English.
County officials used a system known as VC Alerts to send a notification to over 90,000 landlines across town. Sixty-seven thousand people also signed up to receive text alerts, and messages at alternate locations such as a child’s school or a workplace. The opt-in texts were available in Spanish (although not many Spanish-speaking people knew about them). But the more important automatic phone alerts—like in the Amber Alert system—that came with evacuation warnings during the initial days of the fire when it was most critical, were only in English. ReadyVenturaCounty.org, the clearing house for fire-related information, hadn’t been translated into Spanish either.
Thirty percent of people in Ventura speak Spanish at home. In Santa Paula, the rural town where the fire initially broke out, the number of people who speak a language other than English is up around 60 percent. The lack of translations meant no access to potentially life-saving information like mandatory evacuation zones, the locations of shelters, the police-issued mandatory curfew, news on the power outages, or the resulting water pressure drop and boil water advisories.
“We called the Office of Emergency Services [OES], but they just told us that the website linked to Google Translate,” Lucas said. “They said it would be too difficult to get a human being to regularly update it.”
In Ventura, the omission would have potentially devastating consequences for working-class and low-income neighborhoods. Like the Avenue, a community of about 13,000 people on the west side in which 70% of the residents are Latino, which was the most densely populated area in Ventura under mandatory evacuation. Five days into the fire, most of the neighborhood’s residents were still there, even though they weren’t supposed to drink the water, and wildfire smoke pouring through the narrow valley gave the neighborhood some of the worst air quality in the county.
MICOP was one of the main organizations pressuring the city to translate information, while simultaneously drafting their own translations, posting them to their own website and sending it out on social media. Their Associate Director, Genevieve Flores-Haro, led the organization’s effort. “What we are seeing here is a glaring accessibility issue,” Flores-Haro later told the Ventura County Star.
“All of it was even more frustrating when you looked at what was happening in Santa Barbara,” Lucas said. Santa Barbara County, Ventura’s wealthy neighbor to the north, quickly issued bilingual emergency alerts and social media messages in both languages. And while it might be easy to dismiss Santa Barbara as having more resources, or perhaps just a more progressive legislature, in issue after issue, the core problem had less to do with money than with the county’s lack of foresight or consideration into how these crises might affect Ventura’s most vulnerable.
Despite the persistent drizzle of carcinogenic ash, farmworkers had been out in the fields under pressure from the owners to harvest sensitive crops like strawberries before the ash settled on them. The conditions were so bad that workers risked severe health issues, ranging from lung irritation, nausea, nosebleeds, Valley Fever and life-threatening complications for people with asthma or other underlying conditions. CAUSE, MICOP and FLA went with groups of volunteers out into the fields to hand out masks, and to inform farmworkers of their legal rights to request masks or days off for environmental hazards. They also worked with agriculture industry associations to urge farm owners and labor contractors to provide safety masks or keep their workers home.
“We called Cal/OSHA [the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health], but their offices were closed” said Lucas. The Van Nuys office an hour away had, ironically, been closed due to the fire. Even when they called the Sacramento office, the representatives just told CAUSE to fax them a complaint form and they’d hope to get to it next week.
Even though industry spokespeople from the areas major distributors like Driscoll’s insisted the health of their workers was their main priority, organizers were often met with active resistance and outright hostility while trying to distribute protective gear to farmworkers in the fields. As Lucas euphemistically told the Los Angeles Times, Democracy Now!, and other outlets, “We’ve had some hostile interactions.” In one instance, a group of youth volunteers were kicked off a farm on the border between Oxnard and Ventura. Workers were asking for masks when the mayordomo—or foreman—forced Lucas and the volunteers to leave, stating that the volunteers were trespassing on private property. In another incident, Lucas and his team were distributing masks when a speeding pickup truck ran them off of the land.
Organizations representing local growers like the Ventura County Agriculture Association, the Ventura County Farm Bureau and the California Strawberry Commission, sent guidance to members encouraging them to check air quality, provide masks and allow workers to leave if necessary. In an interview for KPCC, Rob Roy, president and general counsel for the 200-member Ventura County Agricultural Association, said, “Look, if there is any doubt, and you check the air quality, and it doesn’t look good, then don’t call people out to work—or send them home. We are hoping that most people follow that advice.” He also said there were no rules requiring growers to provide face masks in the event of a fire. Even when the California Department of Industrial Relations issued an advisory statement saying that employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke “must take appropriate measures,” it left it up to employers to determine what measures would be appropriate. Employers, meanwhile, deferred to contractors and subcontractors, and there were no penalties for noncompliance or active enforcement of the rule.
Under a flood of phone calls and public pressure, Cal/OSHA agreed to reopen their Van Nuys office on December 8. But for the rest of the fire, volunteers and organizers would continue driving from field to field (where they still encountered pickers working in unsafe conditions) and community to community, handing out masks and making sure that people had the information they needed.
We drove up the steep road that led to City Hall, just above downtown Main Street. Lucas turned left on Poli, driving a couple blocks to where the road curves along the hillside, transitioning from Downtown Ventura to The Avenue. I felt nostalgic when I rolled down my window—the entire city smelled like a bonfire, nights at the beach.
His apartment was rife with the musk of smoke damage. The building was erected in 1907,with slatted windows that don’t fully close. Smoke seeped into every room. In the middle of the living room sat an industrial air purifier his mother received through her home insurance.
“You know what it’s like during a small fire,” Lucas said. “You just go about your day. What other choice do you have? That’s what everyone in this neighborhood did. That’s what most farmworkers did,” he said. “Even the ones who didn’t want to work usually didn’t feel like they had a choice. They needed the money. This isn’t our job. We shouldn’t have to be the ones handing out basic safety gear to workers, or telling people that their water might be tainted.”
“It’s just one catastrophe after another. I’m tired. And it’s frustrating to feel like you have to actually make the case that human lives are more valuable than strawberries and avocados,” He paused, and we both stared at his coffee table, covered in more surveys, clipboards, and a thin layer of ash.
The alert that John and Cherie Brant received around 7:00 pm on December 4 wasn’t the first they’d seen. The fire was seventeen miles east. The hills and ridges surrounding their house in Ventura had burned before, at one point coming so close that they had a fire crew stationed in their backyard. They had watched the ridge burn while Cherie brought the firefighters ice-water and John took photographs with his DSLR. The Brants weren’t the type to dismiss any warning. John had actually installed the equivalent of a small weather station on his roof, which fed meteorological data to a tablet in his dining room. Examining it that evening, he came to a frightening realization: “It’ll be here in two hours.”
Cherie grabbed their emergency kit (complete with N95 masks), loaded the dogs in the car, and they joined others to knock on doors and make sure everyone knew the fire was coming. By that point, ash had already begun to fall like light snow.
The Brants live on Breaker Drive, a street that begins and ends above Foothill Road, which runs east to west across Ventura just up from the base of the transverse range. While it’s not a clean-cut division, some of Ventura County’s wealthiest neighborhoods per capita—Ondulando, Colina Vista, and Nob Hill Lane—are above that line. These neighborhoods are risky hillside development, but the residents also checked further growth. People moved there for the views, and have often sided with and worked within organizations that protect the quiet serenity of their surroundings. At the same time, many of these same people have also fought hard against any efforts that would increase the density of downtown Ventura, since building up would obstruct ocean views. And if you’re fighting upward growth, you’re endorsing sprawl by default.
Within an hour, John, Cherie and the dogs drove down Breaker Drive and along Foothill until they reached what seemed like a safe distance. By that time, the ridge behind their homes was burning.
It was hard to tell what was happening. All they could see for certain was apocalyptic fire rising hundreds of feet into the air, spiraling out in cyclonic thermal vents. Every once in a while, they would hear a distinctive pop, and flames, smoke and ash would billow up, and all John could think was there goes my home.
It was John’s sixty-ninth birthday when he and I visited that home. His dogs ran back and forth while he and I leaned against the fence separating his property from acres of charred avocado trees. Coming back was as much a chance to celebrate John’s life as it was to appreciate the fact that his house was still standing. He handed me a pair of binoculars and pointed toward the bottom of the hill, at a flat lot beside a dirt road that winds through the valley.
“See those two black patches? South of those water tanks? There were piles of eucalyptus logs, about 20-feet high each. The company that owns all that land brought it from out back in the hills. For months, we’d worried it was a fire hazard.” The concrete where the stacks had been looked like two artillery shells had landed on it. “Sure enough, the fire came through and they burned for three days.”
He pointed north of the burn marks. “See that house?” I tilted the binoculars. In an otherwise untouched neighborhood, I spotted the charred foundation of a home.
The last few months had been rough for John. In August, routine bloodwork revealed an elevated white blood cell count that further tests concluded was caused by leukemia. After weeks, John began a steroid treatment to fight an autoimmune disease that would have rendered the cancer treatment ineffective. The steroids left him exhausted and worn out most of the time.
This was hard for a man who, for his fiftieth birthday, bicycled five-hundred-miles in five days down the coast for charity (six-hundred on his sixtieth). I was shocked, too. John had been my mentor since I was seven, when he started teaching juggling once a week at the Boys & Girls Club down on the Avenue. I was one of the first kids he taught. Later on, he and his wife Cherie gave me a scholarship to help with college. To pay my rent remaining tuition, I juggled in New Orleans while attending Loyola. When I told him I wanted to move to New York to become a writer, he gave me a $2,000 loan to help get started—it was all the money I had in the world. When the doctors diagnosed him, I was one of the first people he told.
Two years ago, he retired and sold his financial planning firm to spend more time with his wife Cherie. “Every month, for the rest of my life I’m going to spend as much on medical bills as I planned on spending on vacations in a year,” he told me shortly after treatment began. It was the first time I’d ever seen such a highly successful man, who had planned for all inevitabilities and unforeseen circumstances—whose business was to help other people do the same—worry about the future.
The dogs began to scratch at a gate that led out to the front yard. “Better take ’em out,” John said.
We walked up Breaker Drive with the dogs nipping and sniffing around our heels. The further up we went, the more houses we saw that had been leveled. A pile of rubble used to be the home of a 96-year-old woman. All that was left standing was a chimney and the ceramic framing of the bathroom.
Not a single palm in the neighborhood hadn’t caught fire. Their trunks were slick and pitch-black, and the leaves had burned off the fronds, leaving behind something that resembled a giant Tim-Burton-esque spider pitted on a spike. “They’re basically sixty-foot Roman Candles,” John said. Their hurricane-defying flexibility only enhanced their capacity for perpetuating reckless damage, as they’d bend like catapults in the wind and fling embers across neighborhoods, adding to the buckshot, scattered and pure-bad-luck nature of who would be unlucky enough to lose their homes.
Even after people were allowed to return to the neighborhood, the fire still maintained a surreal presence. For the first two nights, John and his brother Gary stayed up shoveling dirt onto hot spots and sudden fires. Places that seemed fine could turn into hazards.
“There was a pile of dirt in the corner of our yard, and one day it just spontaneously burst into flames.” We walked past another home that had been lost to the fire. “That house had actually survived. But when the owners came home, they saw smoke coming from the bedroom closet. They opened the door to check on it, and as soon as they did, it just flamed up. If you’re wondering how long it takes for a house to burn down, it’s about two hours.”
“We’ve had a lot of Lookie-Lou’s and a few looters come around,” Cherie had said to me earlier. And while the police hadn’t reported any uptick in crime, there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that at least one or two people had taken advantage of the situation. John pointed to another burned out lot, where a black box sat in the middle of what used to be the garage.
“That was a safe,” he said. “When the owner came back up, he checked on it and noticed a hole in the side. Someone had tried to drill through it, but they didn’t crack it. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He had $8,000 in that safe. When he opened it up, it was just a pile of ash.”
There was no question that “Lookie-Lou’s” had descended on hard-hit neighborhoods. They’d drive through, take photos as people sifted through the rubble, and drive on. I couldn’t help feeling guilty. I had come home to see my family, but I was also a voyeur, trying to get a sense of what happened. It felt like sneaking in to a stranger’s funeral. But at the same time, the nature of a disaster of this scale is that collectively, we are scarred. Collectively, we are trying to grasp, to comprehend the fallout. And I don’t know whether or not a pilgrimage to a disaster zone does anything to ease our minds or clarify our thoughts—but I know that its an innately human urge, to reach out and touch the source of our pain; to make concrete the feelings that can seem so ephemeral. And I know that often our attempts to comprehend and make sense of the world put us into conflict with one another. The mother sifting through ash does not want to be seen in anguish, and the people from the valley want to understand what has happened to the folks on the hill. I don’t know that those impulses will ever be reconciled.
By the time we got back to the house, the rest of John’s party guests had arrived: his mother, his brother Gary, and their neighbor, Elke.
Gary is an independent contractor. Inevitably, the disaster meant a booming market for his profession. He’d already begun rebuilding a home in Ondelando. Insurance claims in most cases hadn’t been settled, federal money hadn’t moved in, but cornerstones were being laid right where the old houses had burned.
Cherie made lasagna and had baked a German chocolate cake for dessert. The cake came out, with a handful of flaming candles mounted in the frosting. We sang happy birthday as they flickered in the dim light—a small, controlled burn. John blew them out and cut the cake. Then his mother raised her glass and said, “Just think, John. On this day, 69 years ago, it was snowing in Ventura.”
I tried to imagine Santa Paula blanketed in snow—I don’t think it had happened in my lifetime. All I could see was dry brush and wildfire.
My stepfather Loy drove us up the 101 to try to get to my Uncle’s Allen’s ranch. I looked out at the coastal range, one enormous burn scar. We passed La Conchita, a small village stuck in a crag between the 101 freeway and a hillside that had repeatedly collapsed, most recently in 2005, taking lives and homes with it. You can still see the results of the last calving event—an immovable mountain of dirt, where several homes remain entombed. Yet people still live in the town, for the views, for the privacy.
When the rain followed the Thomas Fire, and the National Weather Service warned about potential flooding and mudslides, I thought of La Conchita. When the mudslides swept through Montecito on January 9, it still took a moment to process. This was the home of Jeff Bridges, Rob Lowe, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey—the rich and famous living in estates lined with twelve-foot hedges. The land of milk & honey, where the median home price is 4 million dollars, buried in mud.
As the number of the dead continued to rise, reports began to profile the victims. One, a former ballerina and founder of a real estate firm; another founded St. Augustine Academy, a Catholic school in Ventura. Every story was, of course, a tragedy. The dead ranged from as young as six to as old as 89. But by the time the twentieth body was removed from the mud, other difficult figures emerged.
While 96.2 percent of Montecito’s 9,000 residents are U.S. citizens, nearly a third of the dead were immigrants working in service jobs. Antonio and Victor Benitez, Mexican brothers who worked as gardeners in Montecito, both lost children in the mudslide. Their two families shared a home to make the rent. They were sleeping when the mud came through. According to the Associated Press, some of the family were swept away as they tried to escape through the kitchen door. The body of Victor’s son, Jonathan Benitez, was found nearly two miles away.
Pinit Sutthithepa was a 30-year-old immigrant from Thailand who worked at a Santa Barbara Toyota dealership. For years, he had sent money back to his wife and children to bring them to the United States. his wife and mother were working at a grocery store when the mudslide destroyed their home, killing Pinit, his six-year-old son and his 79-year-old stepfather.
Before we headed up the coast, we had dropped my mother off at the Amtrak station beside the Ventura County Fairgrounds. She had to get to a bookkeeping client in Goleta. The station bulged with hundreds of people, some of the 15,000 daily commuters between Ventura and Santa Barbara who would normally be on the 101.
The Fairgrounds had been a shelter for the displaced during the fire, but it was also one of the main command centers for Cal Fire. At its peak, 8,500 personnel manned the front line—the largest mobilization of firefighters in the history of the state. At the time, the parking lot was nearly filled with fire trucks and emergency vehicles.
The fire trucks were gone. In their place, fenced off piles of dirt, felled trees and rock from Montecito. Every three minutes, another dump truck drove into the lot and deposited debris.
Not only had the mudslide taken an outsized toll on immigrant lives in Montecito, but they were also further harmed by the economic cost of the shut-down of the 101. Caretakers, service industry workers, nurses, nannies, gardeners and many others were cut off from work, or having to pay the relatively expensive cost of taking a round-trip on Amtrak. As I looked out the window, I saw a train heading up the coast. It blew its whistle as it moved along the track past La Conchita.
We exited onto Bates Road, one of the last exits still open before Montecito, which would take us back among the rolling foothills behind Carpinteria, to Gobernador Canyon, where winds had whipped the fire into flurries, taking out homes, ranches and acres of avocados in what would usually be the beautiful back-country of southern California.
I walked under the canopies of Uncle Allen’s avocado trees. Ten rows of trees at the top of the hill had burned. As a kid, when my dad lived in the modular home at the top of the two-acre ranch, I ran beneath them, chasing my sisters and cousins, flinging rocks into the creek that ran down the property. My great-grandma Gigi and Grandpa Fogi bought the ranch sometime around 1960.
Allen and Donna’s ranch house was still standing, though smoke had seeped between every board and the scent would probably linger for years. But they’d just learn to live with it.
I reached out and grabbed a shriveled black fruit. It had withered down to a prune. I took out my pocketknife and cut it open. The flesh was still green. “The dogs love ‘em,” Allen said. I threw the fruit to the ground and his old terrier went right for it.
“The trees should survive,” Allen went on. Unlike lemons, you’re not supposed to prune back an avocado tree after it’s burned. You wait, and see what grows, and then cull the dead branches. But Allen’s real losses had been incurred in his barn.
It was more of a large garage with green aluminum siding than a barn. It wasn’t full of farm equipment, though there was a tractor that had been completely eviscerated in the fire parked right outside. It was a workshop, mainly for working on cars. Allen raced hot-rods down at the El Mirage near Antelope Valley. He once reached a top speed of 303-miles-per-hour. This garage had been a monument to his passion, while also serving as a display room for his father’s art.
Fogi had been a gifted machinist. In the course of his career at General Motors, he helped build the first Humvee and the first lunar rover, among other projects.
He died about eight years ago. His and Gigi’s ashes were scattered in the creek, which was now caked with mud from the floods. But his wire-frame art still hung from the barn walls.
The fire reached the ranch about four days after it started. It burned the top rows of trees (somehow burning every tree around a chicken coop without roasting a single bird), devoured the tractor and Allen’s camper trailer; shot up to the top of two eighty-foot palm trees, and took out the power line.
The aluminum siding transformed the garage into an oven. Everything inside was cooked. A wall-mounted TV-set melted (but somehow still worked), the wire-frame art came undone and burst from the walls. Tools fused together. Eventually, the fire burst through the aluminum and spiraled around the garage in a vortex. Model planes that hung from the ceiling looked like they’d been shot by heavy artillery. The glass on a clock that Allen had inserted into the grill of an old Studebaker melted off and remained twisted in a Dali-esque shape.
“Welp,” he said. “This one was an ass-whoopin’.” He scratched his neck. “Hey, but check this out.” He walked over to a corner of the garage and pulled out a cardboard box. “This box was sittin’ in that corner the whole time, and I didn’t know it was there ‘til we started cleanin’ up.” He set the box on the tailgate of his truck and we looked inside. It was a collection of his father’s photos. He took them out one at a time. His team at GM, photos of him next to the Humvee, family picnics at the ranch. Then he pulled out one in a frame: Fogi and his team stood stoically behind the actual moon rover. The fire hadn’t touched any of them. “There’s no rhyme or reason to what burns and what doesn’t, I guess.”
Allen opened up the mini-fridge and grabbed three cans of Coors Light. “Like these,” he said. “They were in there the whole time, too.” We walked outside the garage, cracked them open and drank.
While I was home, I spent an afternoon with my mother. She was in a mood that I couldn’t explain—going through all of her family heirlooms and asking what I’d like to take. I thought that the fire, and the constant reminder of the little things people lose when their homes burned down, might have had her wanting to make sure that the things she wanted us to keep after she left ended up in the right hands. She insisted that the fire had nothing to do with it. That it was just because I was so rarely home, and she didn’t know when she’d get the next chance. But on my end, the fire had made me take it more seriously. I spent the afternoon leafing through photo albums as Mom rummaged through closets and curio cabinets.
At one point, she brought out an old battered jewelry box that had been covered in duct-tape. “These were my Dad’s,” she said as she sat beside me on her couch.
Her father, Rudolfo Pino, was born in a one-bedroom adobe home on an alfalfa farm in Lemitar, New Mexico, a town that even now has a population of just 330 people. As a child, he and his father moved to California. First, Carpinteria and finally to Porterville, in Tulare County. As Rudy grew up he would work in jobs varying from construction worker to teamster—all while running with a Mexican biker gang, Los Bravados.
Mom opened the box, revealing a collection of pins that Grandpa Rudy had collected from various biker runs over the years. Pins from the 1988 and 1990 Loners Motorcycle Club Jamborees; the Iron Horse ride of 1983; the 1982 Midnite Madness ride, and on. “Do you want these?” Mom asked.
I didn’t know how to answer. Grandpa Rudy had been killed in 1992, and the family didn’t have too many keepsakes to hold on to. “Only if you’re ok with letting them go,” I told her. We kept looking through them, and one in particular caught my eye. I held it up and saw the letters FFA.
“That’s from when Dad was the President of the Future Farmers of America.”
Holding that pin, I felt the cross-sections of my hometown pull at my heart. Ventura, a town of farmers, iron workers, blue-collar roughnecks working on offshore oil rigs and wealthy bioengineers looking out from their windows at those offshore derricks glowing in the night. There are times when all of these disparate people can seem completely segregated from one another, but we are products of each other. I wondered if we could forever hold back against the incessant call to build over the farmland, up into the hills. Some people like to think of Ventura as one of the last semi-rural stretches of the southern California coast—their old Ventucky home. Others prefer to think of a peaceful, well-to-do little city beside the Pacific. It is both, at risk of being lost to time, to human interests and to environmental change. But that little pin was a reminder that I owed my existence to a man born on a farm—that our fates are inseparable.
“I’m not ready to get rid of that one just yet,” Mom said. She set the FFA pin aside and gave me the box with all the others.
Not long after the 101 Freeway reopened, Ventura began to recede from the world’s collective consciousness.
The fire did lead to some real changes. Cal/OSHA now requires outdoor workers to wear N95 masks during unhealthy or hazardous air quality from wildfire. Assembly member Monique Limon, working with State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, announced plans to introduce bills to create an opt-out emergency alert system, improve emergency communications to non-English speaking immigrant communities, and reduce wildfire risk to new homes. Amtrak added an early morning commuter train as an alternative to the destroyed 101 freeway, for Santa Barbara’s working-class who drive in every morning from cheaper areas like Ventura.
But there remain serious problems. Some are existential questions about California’s future in a climate of persistent wildfires, droughts and floods. Others are systemic injustices, like the fact that inmates made up one in five of the personnel on the front lines of the Thomas Fire, earning a dollar an hour while risking their lives. One article about them in the Ventura County Star was hauntingly surreal:
“On a ridge above Montecito on Thursday, they worked in crews of 15, leaders shouting orders, scarifying a ribbon of mountain too steep and craggy for any bulldozer. The winds had abated, as they had many times before, but the inmates were racing the clock, chopping away at ceanothus trunks and gnarled manzanita roots with specialized saws, picks, shovels, rakes and axes…No day has been the same on the front lines. On Saturday, the winds had calmed. The heat rose in a column, carrying smoke and soot, mushrooming into a pyrocumulus cloud 30,000 feet high. On the ground, it was quiet and still. Gerardo Moran, 41, and his fellow convicts thought the worst was over. They were loading the truck about 2 a.m. Sunday to head back to camp and rest, as the temperature dropped. Then the weight of all that material in the atmosphere collapsed. A violent downdraft hit the ground and blew in every direction, fanning waves of flame.
“Come on, tools out!” a Cal Fire captain shouted.”
Some good may come of this yet. A proposal was recently submitted to convert a camp on the city limits of Camarillo into what they would call the Ventura Training Center, operated by CalFire and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The camp would house up to 80 parolee participants to be trained in fire suppression, emergency incident response and to perform fire prevention and resource management work. Parolees in the program would receive 18-months of training and an entry-level firefighter’s certification, as well as a $1,900 monthly salary. But in a sign of how much good will that many elected representatives are extending towards the prisoners who worked feverishly in the state’s largest wildfire, on March 31 the Camarillo City Council voted to draft a letter to the governor opposing the proposal. An agenda report from City Manager Dave Norman states that “Establishing a de facto halfway house for former felons (whose offenses may have included burglary and robbery) in such close proximity to some of the most exclusive residential neighborhoods in Camarillo is a concern.”
Other local issues endure, like what to do with the displaced patients from Vista Del Mar, a hospital that treats 80 adolescents and adults with mental health issues, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder. Two of the facility’s buildings burned down during the fire, and there is no comparable facility in the area. Although the owners have announced plans to rebuild the facility, there aren’t many options in the meantime, especially after former Governor Schwarzenegger significantly decreased funding to the state’s mental health programs in 2010.
Most glaring of all, while FEMA has closed up shop and left town after providing assistance to countless local citizens, thousands of undocumented immigrants remain without help from insurance or government, many waiting on a months-long waiting list for the 805 Undocufund, a local effort to raise money for people excluded from federal aid. From housekeepers and landscapers who served evacuated and destroyed homes in Montecito, to farmworkers who couldn’t work in the dangerous wildfire smoke, to immigrant families living in rural trailers burned in the backcountry, the region’s poorest residents lost millions in wages and belongings, with little attention or assistance.
This is just a sampling of what lies ahead. To try and list all of our shortcomings would only lead a person to break down and give up.
Before I left California, Lucas and I took a bike ride up the Ojai trail, which runs along the Ventura River. Along the way, we spotted a group of kids, about ten years old, playing in the water.
After the rains, the runoff coming down the river had been considered unsafe, full of debris and chemicals used to fight the fire. Lucas and I stopped and got off our bikes. We had to shout for them to hear us on the other bank.
“Hey,” Lucas yelled. “You guys shouldn’t be playing down there—the water’s not safe. There’s a lot of bad stuff in it right now.”
The kids looked up and shouted back, “OK!”
“They’re not gonna take us seriously,” I told Lucas. “We’re wearing helmets.”
We knew that when we rode out of sight the kids would jump back in the water; just as we knew that the neighborhoods that had been built up into the hills would not only be rebuilt but expand. We knew it as sure as we knew that there would be another fire, another flood. Our hills are cloaked in drought-resistant manzanita, chamise, scrub oaks and other shrubs that have developed a symbiotic relationship with wildfires. Some native plants require some sort of fire cue (heat, smoke, charred wood) to induce a chemical change in the soil before germination is possible.
Certain beautiful wildflowers only grow after a forest fire has burned away all the brush. It’s the only time that enough sunlight can reach them. They blossom almost immediately with the first rain. For that reason, they are called fire followers. In any disaster, we find our selfishness and our heroism intertwined. On the surface of a fickle, indifferent, chaotic planet, we cling to the hope that we can find a way to live well on it. We have these opportunities, out of the ashes of our worst moments, to improve upon ourselves and our society. But those moments are brief. The chaparral rejuvenates, and the thick, taller shrubs and native grasses grow back. Those hopeful little blossoms, having had their day in the sun, wither and die, forgotten until the next fire rushes through.