In late December CAPS Media premiered The Perfect Firestorm – The Thomas Fire Story, a documentary film based on the first-person stories of fire fighters, first responders and members of the public impacted by the Thomas Fire. The film features very personal memories of an extraordinary community coming together to support, survive and recover during and after the tragedy.
I want to thank Ventura City Fire and Police, Ventura County Fire, Sheriffs, Office of Emergency Services and other agencies, the Museum of Ventura County and the extraordinary citizens of Ventura county who shared their very personal stories.
I also want to thank everyone who attended screenings of the film at the Museum of Ventura County in December. Producing the documentary was an honor and a privilege for all of us at CAPS Media and the overwhelmingly positive response is deeply appreciated.
The Perfect Firestorm is a tribute to the entire community of heroes who, in the face of a devastating crisis responded with astonishing calm and then opened their hearts, hands, and homes to rescue neighbors and strangers, and together begin rebuilding lives.
Ed and Sandy Fuller celebrated the completion of their home rebuild after the Thomas fire devastated their neighborhood and reduced their beloved home to ashes. A ribbon-cutting ceremony by Ventura city officials was held in front of the new home and another across the street at the newly completed residence of Michael and Sandra Gustafson who also lost their home to the Thomas Fire.
Newly appointed Mayor Matt LaVere spoke during the event, recalled watching the devastation and wondering how the city could ever recover from the catastrophic event that leveled over 500 homes in Ventura. LaVere said ”But we sat down that next week and we were talking about the idea of Ventura strong and the amazing strength and resiliency of this community. We said our number one priority in 2018 has to get homes rebuilt and back into their homes. And here we are one year later, celebrating the first two homeowners who have rebuilt and are moving back into their homes and I think that is a momentous occasion.”
Ed Fuller is an avid singer and was at a rehearsal for his barbershop quartet in Camarillo when news of the spreading Thomas Fire reached him. Fuller raced back to his Ventura home, but like 500 other Ventura families, his home would be destroyed.
On the morning of the ribbon cutting ceremony, Ed and his barbershop quartet performed for the gathered guests and city officials. Views of the Channel Islands and the hillsides visible from the rebuilt home added to the jubilant mood. A little over a year ago there was nothing but a scorched and debris filled lot. Today they would be finally moving into their rebuilt home.
Sandy Fuller was excited, “All I can say is I am so excited,” She said as she hugged each guest entering the home to tour the newly built structure. “Last year was so sad,” she added.
Jeff Lambert, Community Development Director for the city in remarks to the gathered crowd said: “It’s been a long year since the biggest fire in modern history hit the city.”
The numbers tell part of the rebuilding story:
165 building permits issued, meaning construction can start.
410 Permits issued for repairs
106 plans in a review, which usually means a building permit isn’t far behind
289 Zoning clearances issued
483 appointments with property owners and architects
“It’s pretty exciting to see this much activity,” Lambert added, “The Clearpoint neighborhood has the beginnings of several other homes, poles up, foundations set, fences erected around lots.” He said.
Lambert added “In recent weeks, in addition to helping homeowners rebuild he has also been giving information to other cities now going through a similar process. The Hill and Woolsey fires in East Ventura County, and Los Angeles County destroyed more than 1,000 homes,”
Lambert said “Ventura learned from Santa Rosa,” and now he and others are passing along what they have learned to Calabasas, Thousand Oaks and Malibu.
Across the street from the Fullers Michael and Sandra Gustafson also held a ribbon cutting where the same crowd of well-wishers and city officials assembled.
“It feels so good,” Sandra said. “It’s good to have Sandy and Ed as neighbors because I think we were trying to keep up with them,” she added.
“I feel elated it has been a long year a rough road,” said Michael Gustafson just after cutting the red ribbon to his newly rebuilt home. “You know it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” added Gustafson. “The city was excellent, they really helped out the city did what they told us they would do,”
“We poured the foundation on the second of July, so it’s been five or six months and were done,” he said. “Our insurance was excellent we didn’t have any problems at all, they were just excellent,” added Gustavson.
The first two homes in Ventura have been completed and ready to move into. A true milestone has been reached in the efforts of Venturan’s to recover from the devastation, sadness and human tragedy that was the Thomas fire.
It was important that Elmer, Gracie Mae and Bandito accompany them.
REMEMBERING ~ Thomas Fire took their home but not their spirit
by James F. Gray
Thomas Fire victims, Christopher Means (52) and his wife, Gail (54) lost their Ondulando home, but are planning to rebuild. Their first priority after the fire was to find a rental that would allow their three large rescues, all Dobermans from the Dobie and Little Paws Rescue in Filmore (also greatly affected by the fire). It took two months of commuting from their mother’s in Palm Springs to finally land at their current location in Oxnard with Elmer, Gracie Mae and Bandito accompanying them.
However, there are many bright spots, such as the support of family, neighbors and friends, old and new, and the potential to build their dream house.
The Means hired architect and structural engineer, Mark Baker, who lives two streets away, for their reconstruction. They had met his wife and dog previously on walks around the neighborhood. The delay in getting back to the area meant a significant delay in getting started as Mr. Baker was well booked up by that time, but they couldn’t be happier with the choice.
The lot was unique, with an odd shape and many feet of fill over most of it. The city of Ventura, so far, has been fantastic, with every visit, request and even onsite consultations.
Their insurance has been wonderful, too—no issues there—they would highly recommend State Farm Insurance to anyone.
Although they have not broken ground yet, they are excited yet apprehensive about rebuilding costs, which may add an extra several hundred thousand dollars due to caissons, extra construction fees and building code changes. A new mortgage means delayed retirement, and the value of what it costs to build, plus the value of the lot could far exceed the value when complete.Being close to retirement, they are considering all options.
Still, the thought of the new home, spectacular location with amazing views, great neighbors and neighborhood, fills them with hope and excitement about the future.
Whatever happens, they plan to retire in the Ventura area, on a nice private area with their dogs and the ocean close.
Recently, Gail was caught in the evacuation from the Woolsey fire, having to drive through with fire on the hills. Coming up on the year anniversary of the loss has been difficult emotionally for them, as they remember the past and feel empathy for those recently whose lives have been touched with the same disaster just over the hill.
VLT rented a crane and lifted Dan into a tree. Photo by Adrienne Stephens
REMEMBERING ~ Ventura Land Trust replaces hawk nest felled during Thomas Fire
Ventura Land Trust (VLT) recently replaced a Red-tailed Hawk nest that was knocked out of a eucalyptus tree after the Thomas Fire. Knowing that Red-tailed Hawks have nested in the same tree for decades, VLT Stewardship staff rented a crane and lifted it into a tree close to the one that had been damaged. The goal was to offer the local hawks a new place to nest before breeding season kicks into full swing.
“Red-tailed Hawks generally mate for life and return year after year to the same nest or area to lay their eggs and raise their young,” said Kate Furlong, VLT Stewardship Director. “VLT is committed to wildlife habitat preservation and the goal of this project is to protect a wild place where the hawks can breed, hunt, and thrive year-round.”
The Ventura Land Trust, a nonprofit land trust operating in the Ventura region since 2003, currently manages 90 acres of permanently protected open space in the Ventura River watershed, and is in the process of purchasing another 2,100 acres of prime hillside property in Ventura. The mission of VLT is to permanently protect the land, water, wildlife, and scenic beauty of the Ventura region for current and future generations.
It’s hard to believe that a year ago this month the Thomas Fire blazed through our city, leaving many feeling distraught and homeless. It is a year I will never forget as our family, my wife Danica and our two young children, lost our first family home. Every day since, there are subtle reminders of the things we’ve lost, but above all we are grateful to be rebuilding our home and continuing to hold onto the hope of creating another home for our children to grow up in. The losses we suffered will never compare to the love and support we received in abundance from friends, family, strangers, and the community.
As a local architect and as someone going through the rebuild process myself, I would like to give my praises to the employees at the City of Ventura who have taken a personal interest in helping us rebuild. I’m constantly dealing with the Planning and Building departments, and as many people know, this can be a long and arduous process even under normal building circumstances. My expectation was that it would be a similar experience working with the fire rebuilds. I can honestly say that even though I wished the overall process would have taken less time, I don’t believe this to be the fault of the staff. My opinion is that they have done an exceptional job of responding to this crisis. For example, Veronica Ledesma, who is usually found at the front counter of the planning department, is always enthusiastic to help, provide knowledge, or answer questions. She is supported by Scott Kolwitz and Dan Nielsen who work tirelessly to permit rebuilds as quickly as possible.
The most time consuming and difficult part of the rebuild process is getting a building permit. We have been more than impressed with the management and guidance of the Chief Building Official, Yolanda Bundy over the last year. She has done everything in her power to expedite the permit process. She is extremely efficient and has gone above and beyond to get our permits issued. In our last meeting, we showed up with four projects ready for approvals and Yolanda made it her mission to approve all four projects that very same day. I remember walking to the parking lot feeling thankful because we have people that really care and want us back in our homes as quickly as possible.
Other city officials have been especially helpful as well, such as Deputy Mayor Matt LaVere. He always offered support and frequently checked in on our progress. Finally, Jeff Lambert, The Community Development Director. Thank you, Jeff, for handling the most difficult decisions… your efficiency and concern for our community was noticed and appreciated.
As we look back, we are thankful that this year has passed and that we can focus on the future of this community. We look to the families that lost and the families that gave, with gratitude knowing that our little beach town can withstand anything. We are proud of this community, it’s employees and most of all, it’s perseverance.
Over the past year, CAPS Media in collaboration with the Museum of Ventura County went into the community and spoke to many who were affected by the Thomas Fire. We interviewed over 70 people and let them share their stories. Neighbors, friends and First Responders were invited to various locations throughout the county and into the CAPS Media studio to record their stories. From these powerful stories we created a 90-minute documentary.
The Perfect Firestorm is our documentary film that chronicles these personal stories of survival and healing during and following the devastating Thomas Fire. Screenings of the film are free and open to the public with an RSVP required on Sunday, December 16 at 12pm and 3pm at the museum’s pavilion at 100 East Main Street in Ventura. Due to limited seating, reservations are required. Email [email protected] and indicate the time of the screening you wish to attend.
The Perfect Firestorm was produced in cooperation with Ventura City Fire and Police, Ventura County Fire, Sheriff’s, Office of Emergency Services and other agencies. The year-long project is based on dozens of first-person interviews with fire fighters, first responders, residents and others impacted by the tragedy. In addition to sharing their heartfelt, inspiring and at times tragic stories, the citizens of Ventura County provided CAPS Media with hundreds of photos and videos recorded during and after the fire to help tell the story.
The Perfect Firestorm is a companion production to CAPS Media’s Thomas Fire Stories Project, the series of half-hour, first-person stories that airs every Friday night on CAPS Media. All the interviews conducted for the series and documentary air as stand-along stories on CAPS Media and on KPPQ-LP at 104.1fm.
“CAPS Media is privileged to produce the series and film,” said Patrick Davidson, Executive Director of CAPS. “and extremely fortunate to have the tremendous cooperation and unprecedented access to remarkable stories and supporting material for the project. We have county and city media including video, photos and dispatch calls. The Ventura community responded rapidly by sending us hundreds of personal photos and video of their first-hand experiences. And, as this is a collaborative with the Museum of Ventura County, we have an equally special agreement with television affiliate stations to utilize news coverage of the fire.”
Storytellers recounting personal stories include Ventura County Fire officers Chad Cook, Dustin Gardner, Vaughn Miller, John Spykerman, as well as County CEO Mike Powers, OES Director Kevin McGowan, City Fire Chief David Endaya, City Police officers Mike Brown and true citizen-heroes including Debbie Brokaw, Kat Merrick and her Local Love project, Jake and Jenny Dilbeck, Trevor Quirk and Upper Ojai Relief, Jason Collis and Dr. Susanne Lammot’s World Kitchen/Chef Relief Project, Lance Korthals, Clark Tulberg of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dr. Sean Anderson and many more inspiring storytellers.
All of us at CAPS Media offer our heartfelt thoughts and best wishes to everyone throughout Ventura County who suffered personal tragedy caused by the devastating fires of the last two years. We celebrate the extraordinary courage and sacrifice of fire fighters, law enforcement personnel and other first responders who tirelessly battled the devastating fires.
The Perfect Firestorm is a tribute to our entire community of heroes who, in the face of an overwhelming crisis, responded with astonishing calm and then opened their hearts, hands and homes to rescue neighbors and strangers and together rebuild their lives. We also thanks those in the media and support services who helped provide vital information to all of us in the community. Our community came together. Please contact CAPS Media at capsmedia.org or at 805.658.0500 for information about the screenings and about how to join and become a member. Our mission is to create an engaged and informed community through participation in electronic media.
Michael O’Brien and his adult son were asleep at midnight on December 4, 2017. Thirty minutes later, Mr. O’Brien’s son woke him after hearing the blare of police sirens. The two fled the home on Hillcrest Drive they had lived in since 1982. They left with the family dog and nothing else. “It was very windy. I could smell smoke, but I didn’t see any flames.” Mr. O’Brien says he had an ominous feeling about the fire but it wasn’t until the next morning that he knew the extent of its devastation. “We spent the night at my brother’s in Faria Beach. We went back the next morning about 8:00. All we could see were ashes, chimneys and fireplaces. There was nothing to salvage.” The O’Brien’s lost everything. “The whole street looked like a war zone.”
Mr. O’Brien immediately contacted the insurance company who had a finder service to help with temporary housing. Mr. O’Brien eventually found his own place that the insurance company pays the rent on. “Our insurance company was quick to react. They set up a tent at the mall and assigned an adjuster who come out a couple of weeks later.”
Mr. O’Brien says that not only did he lose all his worldly possessions, but the home itself held so many family memories. “We are living in Camarillo right now. The dog has adjusted, but my son and I are looking forward to moving back to Ventura.” The O’Briens are in the process of rebuilding. “We hope to have a home by 2020. Hopefully, the contractor will start building soon. The building permit is ready to be picked up at city hall.” O’Brien says that if he had to do it over, he would have bought more insurance. “There just wasn’t enough to rebuild a house that size.”
by Doug Halter Halter-Encinas Enterprises and Landscape
As a professional landscaper, hillside resident and passionate Ventura resident, the Thomas Fire will always be major heartbreaking and unbelievable experience in my lifetime. To see the fire come over the hill and into mine and our neighbors’ yards, then spread from house to house until it hit the heart of downtown left many of us speechless and in shock that still brings tears and emotions to many of us as the City that we love and our homes and memories were threatened by this horrific event. Many lessons were learned as we watched the flames leap from trees to house eaves, and our wood fences became highways of flames only to devour the next unsuspecting home owner and sanctuary.
As a landscaper, over the next several months, I had appointments with many of the people who lost their homes or some of the thousands that had damage and each day brought tears and memories of that horrifying night. Everyone had a story that needed to be shared if for no other reason than to help heal and know the horror we all experienced that night.
Now, a year later, I see many things that I would hope we can all do to prevent or minimize the impact of another wildfire.
First, I would make sure that vines, shrubs and trees are at least 10 ft from the house and not growing on or over it. Second, I would serious consider block walls and not wood fencing as many people called to thank me for the walls we created as they saved their house from being destroyed as my own saved our house. Third, we should consider solar power with battery backups to run sprinklers in our yard, and for some of us to, to run sprinklers that we can install on our rooftops.
From a City perspective I would hope that we would be better prepared with more redundancy on our water system so that our fire fighters have a chance at saving our neighborhoods. And lastly, I believe that we were allowed to grow our neighborhoods up the sloping hillsides without any consideration of a firebreak, green space or orchards that can help slow the fire.
Our persistent drought also added to the spread of the fire as many of our once manicured and green yards lay barren with dead weeds or grass. Many plants like Eucalyptus, Pine trees and Mexican sage exploded with flames and I would keep these specimens far from any house; still the embers may still blow into homes many blocks away. Perhaps part of the plan should be to use reclaimed water to keep the first 200 ft behind our neighborhoods green as a buffer.
Now, let’s rebuild our neighbors, use smart yet water wise plantings and together make our community better than ever!
A year ago today Chris and I walked the ranch checking irrigation lines and playing with the pups as we did almost everyday… As I stood on the hill looking at the amazing views, to my left the Pacific Ocean and the Channel Islands and to my right Ojai. I remember so clearly saying a prayer of thanks for being allowed to be in this very special place. Several hours later as I was finishing packing for my trip and double checking the last minute details I received a text from my dear friend Christine Law saying her house was on fire and she was evacuating.
I immediately started texting her and friends in Santa Paula to see if they were safe and to offer refuge ” Come to the ranch, bring the animals… we are here for you”
We could never imagined that in a short matter of time and in the early hours of Dec 5th the Thomas Fire would come barreling straight at us taking everything we owned and cherished in the world.
No words can express the emotion of watching your life burn before you. to knowing hundreds of friends and Ventura County neighbors were suffering the same fate. I have learned that there really are no words to comfort and that the best thing one can do is simply I am very sorry for your loss and work to help when needed.
Our reality of recovery looks like this.
4 moves over the past 8 months and finally feeling the need to take control and move in the 5th wheel on the property.
3 to 7 Years for the trees to be replanted and producing again
6 months to even getting the modular home on site to live in.
Massive loss of rental income for at least another year or two
Stepping foot in our rebuilt home at least 2 years.
The process that the county (County on permits City on water) said is expedite does not seem to be the case for ranchers and farmers. We have been sitting in Fire Dept review for about a month, All our old site plans must be redone (even though the homes are going with where they were and are the same sizes).
All the needed contractors for soil testing, site plans and more are backed up for months, prices have jumped and answers from them are slow at best.
The rebuild process has almost been as hard on us as the loss.
For me the only thing that has helped is to help. It is one of the gifts that came from all of this.
The fire and brimstone atmosphere that raged through California scorched not only land but has wreaked havoc with our psyches and emotional state of being. The aftermath and collective mourning of precious lives lost, houses and earthscapes are palatable. Venturian’s memories not long passed have re-kindled in the air thick as smoke.
On November 8, 2018 three fires broke out. The Hill Fire, Woolsey and Camp Fires combined scorching nearly 250,000 acres, displaced thousands, claimed more than 80 lives, destroyed 14,000 structures, 993 people are unaccounted for and it took 6,400 firefighters round the clock to slay the beasts. The 18-day Woolsey Fire alone impacted Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Chatsworth, Westlake Village, Agoura Hills, Calabasas and Malibu, torching 96, 949 acres.
Barely holding back tears, Paradise Town Council Member Melissa Schuster shares, “The entire town of Paradise is a toxic wasteland right now.” Paradise Hero, Kevin McKay drove 22 stranded elementary school students to safety
Affected was the Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills known as “Western Town” where hundreds of movies and television shows, including HBO’s Westworld have been filmed. Amidst the devastation and tragedy heroes have emerged.
Hollywood Stuntman Ardeshir Radpour saved 300 horses from the Woolsey wildfires, but he doesn’t consider himself a hero. Radpour shares, “The horses feel what we feel and have a heightened sense of awareness. They don’t understand the noise and don’t have a voice for themselves. It’s just what we need to do as human beings to help each other out.”
Hearts are swollen with despair and aching from the abundant suffering in our own back yards, neighboring counties and globally. Yet, all walks of life are united and ignited with the flame of compassion! We have walked in their shoes, lost what they have lost and felt what they have felt.
From the many caring residents, business owners and heroes, their light of empathy burns brightly, snuffing out the fear with their generous optimism, support and helping hands of service so ultimately we can find healing within the unimaginable loss.
Local intuitive artist Sharon Camphell shares, “One candle can light up a whole room. It costs nothing to smile, say hello and make amends with people you love. We do adapt and we are stronger than we think.”
Tim Callaghan, founder and owner of No Limit Fitness, well-traveled and Veteran shares, “As a one year resident of Ventura, I have noticed in the wake of disaster, the hearts of this area are connected in a way where strangers are neighbors and neighbors are family.”
“Mo” owner of Silver Trends says, “We will never forget. With help comes change. Consoling with one another helps make our lives a little better. Our mentality and perspective needs to change from me me me, to we we we. “
Owner of Inner Soulstice Wellness Ayn Devera quotes, “When our energies are aligned we can produce anything. We must connect, share how we feel, lean in towards the discomfort, then we can empathize and from that space of commonality that we are the same creates change.”
Tina Thayer owner of Paradise Pantry shares her feelings and people that arrived devastated and disheveled into the hearth and home vibe café, “I am trying to process the sadness and feel heartbroken for all the loss and happy to serve the weary travelers so they may rest, drop their shoulders and eat a meal.”
Anna Bermudez, Ventura Museum curator quotes, “Preserve the history of Now” “Along with our exhibits, the museum has come to be so much more, a public community gathering place where people feel safe to reflect, remember and heal ”
Musician and icon Neil Young who lost his home speaks out, “Hopefully we can come together as a people to take climate change on!”
Each of us has value in the lives around us! Shine on!