The Thomas fire severely damaged Ventura. With over 650 homes destroyed and 48,000 families displaced, rebuilding Ventura will be long and costly. I hope it will also be a cooperative and wide-awake effort.

What we need to do is get a realistic assessment of where we are, who we are, and the changed climate conditions that now shape our present and future.

Every indicator, including our ongoing fires, “satanic” winds, droughts, animal and plant die-offs, mudslides, and now the seasonal shift in January to a hot east wind and a blistering summer in place of our “winter” rainy period, are tangible arguments for radical changes in our Southern California weather. Professor Sean Anderson of CSUCI claims we are not becoming an actual desert, but more like San Diego than Mojave. Every year is hotter than the previous one, records set every day, and the hot dry conditions persist, with fewer balmy days cooled by the moist sea breeze we all love. Radical climate disturbance is a nasty fact.

What I think few imagined is how quickly it has overtaken us. We may have expected gradual changes, but it looks as though a switch was thrown all of a sudden and the environment was hammered by quick and pervasive upheaval. I fear that if we do not acknowledge and adjust to this, we will damage our future even as we work hard and strategize to rebuild and reconstruct a revived community within the old.

In the past, poor decisions in developing our city grew out of mistaken notions of who we are. I fear that we have devalued ourselves time and time again, perhaps under the shadow of Santa Barbara.

We need to remember that in 1925 Santa Barbara was destroyed by a large 8.0 earthquake. It rebuilt itself with arches, promenades, whitewashed stucco walls and slate roofs in a conscious effort to add class and character to the recovering city as a Spanish Colonial jewel — but a false one at that.

Ventura wrongly measures itself against this false jewel up the coast. We think we have to gentrify, upgrade and grow in order to compete. What we miss is that we still have elements of our particular kind of charm — as a small coastal town with a hodge-podge of architectural styles and miscellaneous neighborhoods, built up over decades without much planning or vision, set on weaving streets and a hillside without regard for a classical grid. We are actually a remaining and rare example of an early coastal town. We should market this.

But instead it has given us an inferiority complex. My evidence for this is the many bad planning decisions we have made in the past. I will note only the most egregious few.

We let the freeway cut the city from its natural flow to the beach, then built a sore-thumb hotel in its face. We refused the promised gift of Taylor Ranch for the siting of a Cal State U Ventura in the western hills of the city, permanently losing a creative and economic engine for our future. We dug up old tombstones in Cemetery Park, broke them into pieces and tossed them in the hills somewhere.

We will build a massive auto center sign that will rotate by the side of the freeway, marking the entrance and exit from our town as a repository of tackiness. This sign epitomizes not our marketing genius but our self-effacement, our sense of disregard and confusion about who we are, our character, our scale. In order to look like what we are, we need to optimize, not maximize.

Our healthy community spirit reveals itself in the many responders and good Samaritans who helped put the fires out and now are pulling together after the fires. We have lost places that showed promise as signs of self-acceptance — the botanic garden (though it might feature native plants exclusively) and the hillsides themselves, now scorched but trying to revive. We need to keep them intact and free of “stepping out” developments. Within the city, our urban forest needs to be free of fire-prone trees and shrubs. And, we must encourage rebuilds to be as water-stingy and fire-resistant as possible.

And also we must not build new housing that will draw from wells, aquifers and a river that are already oversubscribed. We must accept our smallness and limit new growth to water availability — not projections but acre-feet already in the bucket. The standard way of growing and funding a city through more residential, commercial and civic development is now dangerously obsolete and contrary to nature and our civic health.

We must accept our smallness, our neighborhood quaintness, call it our “funkiness,” our unique marketable character as a small-town visitor spot, and understand that not everyone can live here. If we recognize that water is the new gold, we will not squander it on trying to grow out of our climate change reality.

We can become a model of how to live in a region where the most precious resource, water, is in diminishing supply. Real sustainability — no toxics, no lessening of biodiversity, and use of recyclables — can be our claim to fame, a modest, humble and tough-minded goal.

Living within our water means is the challenge of the century here and elsewhere. We can’t muck it up.

Robert Chianese, Ph. D., is a resident of Ventura.