by Burris DeBenning
Evacuate immediately!” With barely any time to snatch up valuables, several thousand Venturans heard this mandatory evacuation order on the evening of December 4 blaring from police and fire megaphones, because of the horror that was rapidly approaching Ventura’s hillside communities and had already consumed thousands of acres in Santa Paula. Santa Paula is almost a good 20 miles from many of these communities, so why the rush? In just under an hour, right in the middle of a city council meeting, Santa Ana wind gusts of 50 miles and greater pushed the fire from its origins at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula all the way to Ventura’s downtown area. Across the hills from the Avenue to Kimball Road, burning cinders from the main fire showered down on trees, roofs, yards and gardens, engulfing and destroying the large Hawaiian Village apartment complex in the hills above downtown Ventura in a matter of minutes, and spreading from home to home. Before the conflagration passed west of the city and threatened Ojai in the north and Solimar-Faria along the 101, over 500 residences, where families had been raised and memories sown, were reduced to rubble and ashes.
City public safety personnel, staff and all of Ventura County rallied to the City’s aid. Because the City has thorough and updated emergency plans, an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was established at Police/Fire Headquarters and a unified agency command center managed by the County Office of Emergency Services set up at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.
At the December 11 city council meeting held at the County of Ventura Board of Supervisors meeting room, Supervisor Steve Bennett called Ventura personnel role models for how to cope with an emergency of this nature. The timing and scope of the evacuation was tremendous, and according to Chief David Endaya of the Ventura Fire Department, an estimated 27,000 people in the hills had to be mobilized in under an hour, a feat that normally takes hurricane prone states days to accomplish. In a few hours, about 6,000 first responders were on hand, striving to save homes and businesses. Thanks to valiant efforts from all personnel working the fire, Ventura did not have a single fatality. Community damage was extensive, involving neighborhoods from Clearpoint in the City’s east to the Avenue, and in between, homes were completely lost or damaged above Ventura College, Ondulando, Skyline and Hobson Heights, the latter established in 1923.
As the City enters the recovery phase of fire operations, resident concerns, questions and needs are being answered and assessed and priorities ranked. At the December 11 council meeting, leadership personnel from various agencies provided status reports, and the City Manager introduced in Special Presentations the team, headed by the Assistant City Manager, Dan Paranick, that would be responsible for the totality of the clean-up and recovery stages of the fire. Before residents can come onto their properties, County and State agencies, such as the State Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), County Public Health and the State Office of Emergency Services (OES), need to first make certain that hazardous waste, such as melted paint cans and broken propane tanks, are removed, and unstable debris, like crumbing chimneys, are cleared away.
Before residents can come onto their properties, County and State agencies, such as the State Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), County Public Health and the State Office of Emergency Services (OES), need to first make certain that hazardous waste, such as melted paint cans and broken propane tanks, are removed, and unstable debris, like crumbing chimneys, are cleared away.
Councilmember Chery Heitmann asked Chief Corney for a timetable on when people can get back to their homes to collect valuable and mementos, and the chief estimated about two weeks, due to the extensive utility work being performed by the Southern California Gas Company and Southern California Edison. In fact, SCE has erected staging areas for line and pole repair at both Arroyo Verde Park the Ventura Community Park.