It was odd for her to call that late

by Barbara Brown

On Monday around ten, my neighbor Lauren called. It was odd for her to call that late… her voice was tense. She relayed news from her husband Tom Lanski, a Ventura County Fire Captain— the fire in Wheeler Canyon was moving toward Ondulando and she should, precautionarily, pack.

Alerting our neighbors, we moved from house to house knocking and shouting as the horizon changed from amber to brilliant red. Then we heard the evacuation announcement and as quickly as possible, we left.

Driving across town to our son’s house, we watched the fire parallel us through the city. It was terrifying to see how swiftly it moved, and how high the flames were. When we curved the 33, the Avenue hillside was ablaze. Seeing that, I had a bad feeling about the botanical Gardens.

Soon after arriving at my son’s house, the flames breached his hillside and we had to leave. I began to call hotels; they were booked. It was hard to breathe in the smoke, it was dark and everywhere there were flames.

Finally, friends offered to let us crash in their room at the Crowne—a huge relief. We arrived smoky, disheveled and in shock.

One of our retired firefighter friends, Tom Retan, who was listening to dispatch, began texting updates. That was comforting. He was with us remotely hour by painful hour.

From our hotel window, we could only see the east side of the city and not much of it. We looked for a better vantage point and finally found a city-facing window in a stairwell. In horror, I watched the Gardens burn. My heart broke. This city jewel was torched. I didn’t sleep that night.

Finally, in the morning, I called Lauren; in tears she spoke, “we’ve lost our home”. My heart dropped, she’d gotten us out, but she’d lost everything. I cannot describe how that felt.

News was spotty on Tuesday; I focused on the Gardens. Then, I saw a text. Susan and Greg’s home had survived (our friends at the Crowne). I texted, “Could you check ours?” and heard nothing for a long, long time. As the minutes dragged on, anxiety crept in. Then the phone rang. As his own voice broke, our friend Mark explained our home was gone.

My heart actually hurt… it still does… when I think about it.

The first days after learning our home had fallen were surreal. We handled it well enough; friends and family were so supportive. The realization that we had nothing but four boxes of photos and our pajamas was bizarre, but we had each other and citywide, there were no fire casualties. That was a miracle.

Wednesday, we hiked to see our home or, what was left of it. Standing with my husband, son and daughter-in-law, viewing the ash and debris, a sense of profound and irreparable loss set in—the deep and painful realization that our lives had forever changed.
We’re still not out of it; the song “Vagabond Blues” keeps running through my head, but we’ve reconnected with our neighbors and they are alive and well.

I have to say, we are so lucky to be a part of a community that comes together in crisis. So many homes were lost. The next two years are going to be difficult, but we’re optimistic, we love this city and we’re planning to rebuild. We’re deeply grateful for the support of friends and family, the commitment of our community leaders and lastly, the first responders who worked so hard to save homes in desperately dangerous conditions, despite their own profound losses.

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