I saw Ventura burn right before my eyes.
What started as a power outage before 10:00 pm, turned into a night full of furious, raging fires that were fueled by the powerful Santa Ana winds.
It happened so fast.
8:00pm Sounds of the Santa Ana winds whipping violently outside was normal for this time of year. The smell of smoke was not.
9:45pm Power goes out from Ventura to Santa Barbara. Flashlights in hand, neighbors outside, we walk to Thompson Blvd. and see an ominous blanket of clouds covering half of the Ventura sky with ash beginning to rain down. Scared and alert, we walk back home.
11:00pm Fire chief speaks in Santa Paula. The ‘Thomas’ Fire is set to hit the east end of Ventura by 1 or 2 am. Cautious but exhausted, I fall asleep for twenty minutes.
11:30pm My neighbor furiously pounds on the doors of everyone in our complex. The fire has already ripped through the east end of town in record time and has made its way to the west end, also known as Downtown Ventura. The hills behind Poli (Foothill) are now engulfed in flames and the wind is pushing them Downtown.
The mayhem is well underway. People running, packing, trying to think of what they value. Do I take this? What about that? How much do I really need? Will I ever see my home again? No power, headlamps used for camping turned on, a backpack stuffed with a passport, car title, and my computer plus a few cherished books. Then water, trail mix, and a change of clothes. Ready to go.
The streets were full of people. Some packing cars, some wondering whether to stay or go. Street lights were out. Traffic lights too. You could hear the wailing sound of fire trucks wail throughout the night. People honking horns, screaming, trying everything they can to wake up their neighbors. This community is dedicated to each other and all of us refused to leave anyone behind. That cannot be overstated. Since this fire rapidly spread at night, when people had already gone to bed, it’s a miracle that at the moment that there is only one confirmed casualty.
A few neighbors of mine packed up and hit the road looking for safety. I wasn’t leaving. I was packed and prepared. It was still a few blocks away, ravaging the hills and the homes that are situated with views of the Pacific.
On standby, and unable to sleep for the fear I might burn alive, I sat with my neighbors. The torture and strange allure of watching Mother Nature rip through downtown, praying that people made it out, praying that the fire would spare homes, businesses, and stick to the mountains, consumed us. The fire reached The Cross at Grant Park- a Downtown Ventura staple. As the cross was ablaze, we looked on from the second story of our apartment complex, watching the hills burn like a community campfire in December that no one wanted.
Frames of houses sizzled, showing the structural skeleton of million dollar homes. When fire hits, all houses burn the same. As we all sat in a surreal state, we watched the sky burst with light. Hawaiian Village, home to over 53 apartments, and just over 150 tenants had been taken over by the blaze. This behemoth of a property had no chance against the frantic flames taking everything out in its path. It’s now 1:00 am. Our complex stayed together. We could do nothing but watch our city burn. With shirts over our mouth, protecting us from the toxic smoke as a result of all the cars that were burned along the way, we sat stunned. Then we went walking, wondering what the rest of the city looked like. People were scared and out, looking for others to comfort their anxiety. A lady pulled her car up to us and asked where we thought was safe. Her passenger seat had a small, bedside table, and the rest of her car was packed with other possessions she deemed valuable. She was in her fifties and visibly anxious. She evacuated but had nowhere to go. Unsure if the fairgrounds had the capacity to shelter more people, and if it was safe from the blaze, she drove around and waited.
Hoping to get control of the inferno, helicopters tried to fly, but the relentlessness of the Santa Ana winds made this close to impossible. The wildness of the fire provided an atmosphere that felt like we were witnessing the closest thing to hell on earth.
Time carried. So did the flames.
At 3:30 am I found myself at the top of Main Street and Hemlock like I’d done hundreds of times, just before sunset to soak in Ventura’s stunning views. Now the only view I had was the last stand of the Hawaiian Village. A handful of people- community members- somberly watched the structure slowly crumble, and when the last wall went down, lying in an enormous bed of embers, we all got a little closer; strangers, but united as members of the community. Knowing that this was just the beginning of what looked to be a devastating few days, we all split and walked back home- grateful that we still had a place to rest our heads and sick to our stomachs knowing friends and families throughout the county are now homeless.
December 5th 9:00am In the late morning the fire was still strong and the winds pushed on. Riding around, the destruction on the east and west side of Ventura proved devastating. Homes burned all the way down to the ground. The fire played a twisted game of hopscotch.
Ash would continue to fall the next few days making it feel as though we were saddled next to a volcano. Many people saw the circulated video of the inferno like atmosphere along the 405. That’s what we are dealing with. The fires are alive and spreading through Southern California. From one fire, it became two, to four, to finally six. They showed little signs of containment, and instead they burn along while firefighters relentlessly try to keep pace...
So here we are. It’s Friday, and the fires that began Monday are far from being over.
As I got out of bed this morning- December 8th- 8:00am, the smoke filled sky is back. Over 115,000 acres have been burned. Over 450 structures have been lost. Everything that’s happened feels surreal. The Ventura community is hurting. So is Ojai and Santa Paula. People are in pain. Now reality is sinking in. People survived. Houses were lost. Families are hurt. People are just now beginning to heal, but the road is long and daunting. We are strong. We are a community in the truest sense.
But we need your help. I am asking all friends and family members from the East Coast to consider donating to help our community. I personally know five families who have lost their homes. I will match up to $600 in donations for anyone who wants to help my neighbors in Ventura and Ojai. All of the money donated will go directly to the families who lost everything. There are a few ways in which you can get me money. 1. Venmo me directly @Brian-Galetto ...You could also direct message me on Instagram @Galetto.b or message me on my email Galetto.firstname.lastname@example.org for more information if you are interested in helping.
I will have all of the money dispersed by the end of the next Friday and a letter for everyone who helped letting you know where your money went.
Pray for us in Ventura County- we're going to need it.