When the Thomas Fire lit up Ventura County on Monday night of Dec. 4, it spread with shocking speed and devastating destruction, leaving entire neighborhoods decimated in its wake. Our Dec. 14 issue told the story of some of the Ventura residents who lost their homes to the fire. Now, six months later, the flames have long since been stamped out . . . but the havoc that Thomas wreaked remains, with many people still displaced, businesses lost, lots vacant and the future uncertain for those trying to piece their lives back together. We caught up with four of our former subjects — Susan Scott, Chris Snyder, Veronica James and Matt Johnson — about where they are now, and how they are rebuilding post-Thomas.
“I’m actually feeling pretty whole now.”
Up until December 2017, Susan Scott was a resident of Hawaiian Village Apartments in the hills above Downtown Ventura, where a “million-dollar view” of the ocean with enviable access to the hustle and bustle of the city center went up in smoke when Thomas came calling with a vengeance. The executive director of the Ventura Music Festival, however, was able to pull herself up from the ashes with the help of local friends.
“I didn’t struggle and a number of things helped,” explained Scott by email. “For starters, Michael Boyko, a festival board member and the owner of Reardon Funeral Home, took me in at 5 a.m. on Dec. 5 after he finished fighting embers in his own parking lot from the Hawaiian Village fire. He has a guest bedroom suite in the apartment above the funeral home and I resided there for almost eight weeks. It was private and comfortable, and Michael and the staff were just great, plus the locale appealed to my funny bone.”
Not long after, she found a condo in the Seabridge section of Oxnard, where she expects to reside until the end of 2019. While she’s no longer in Downtown Ventura, her work with VMF continues apace, and she admits that’s been a boon to her.
“The fact that I had an office (something of my own) to go to was hugely helpful,” she said. “I received almost 60 emails and texts from artists, friends and colleagues in the first few days after the Hawaiian Village burned, with offers of places to stay, furnishings and clothes and — from several artists — promises of new art once I found a home.”
That “new art” is intended to replace Scott’s former art collection, an impressive compilation, amassed through years of collecting, that was completely lost to the flames. It was fully insured, thankfully, and while the loss of the items themselves will no doubt sting indefinitely, Scott didn’t find herself fighting with the insurance companies to recover her losses.
“While bureaucratic, the several insurance transactions went well. What could have turned into a long, difficult and possibly contentious documentation of my art collection was avoided fairly early by the decision of the insurance company to forgo documentation and pay the full extent of what I had insured the contents and art for,” Scott said. “They and other companies did so given Thomas’ declared status as a federal disaster. While the payment didn’t begin to match the value of the collection, the underinsurance was my doing, not the insurance company’s.”
Scott has also started her new art collection, with works from Tom McMillin, Russ McMillin, Elisse Pogofsky-Harris, Duane Dammeyer, Tanya Kovaleski,Caz Deknatel, Janet Neuwalder and Michael Boyko already in place. “Pieces from Elana Kundell, Martha Moran, Roxie Ray, Michael Pedzwiatr and David Baker are promised,” she added. “Also, there’s a vintage Persian rug on the floor that looks like a modern painting. I remain a happy, grateful art collector!”
On an emotional level, Scott noted that VMF has not only kept her busy, but given her a way to engage a community that lost much in the fire. There was the free Concert for Ventura offered in February, which “reminded me not only how important it is to give back but also to make it economically possible for everyone to attend,” she said. “It influenced our decision to present another big free public concert, also in Mission Park, this July as part of the 24th festival. The breakout band is Jarabe Mexicano and people will love them! I hope we can continue this practice in the years ahead. It feels good and it feels right.”
“I’m actually feeling pretty whole now,” Scott said in conclusion. “When people express condolences or ask about the fire, I tell them I’m in a good place. I’m going forward.”
“It could happen at any minute.”
“We miss Ventura quite a bit,” Chris Snyder said in a recent phone interview. He, his partner, Linh, and daughter, Matilda, now a year old, had to flee in the middle of the night from their Harbor View apartment on North Kalorama. The family was fortunate to find lodging with a host family in Thousand Oaks, but with a baby in tow, “We really needed a place of our own.”
In mid-January, Snyder and family ended up relocating to an apartment in University Glen in Camarillo, which has been beneficial in some ways — closer to the Malibu High School where Linh works, for one thing. And Matilda has been able to stay in her same day care, which has helped her adjust to the changes.
One of Snyder’s big concerns post-fire was replacing all the documentation — driver’s licenses, passports and other vital paperwork — that had been lost. He noted that the command center set up at Poinsettia Pavilion proved extremely valuable. “They made it really easy for us,” he said. Everyone still needs replacement passports, but as Snyder noted, “We don’t have much international travel planned.”
Overall, he said that “It was a smooth transition,” thanks to the support of friends and family. While they didn’t have insurance, funds from a GoFundMe account and a Totally Local VC fundraiser helped on the financial end, and everyone benefited from a clothing drive. Snyder praised in particular the gear available to him from Patagonia. “We got really good clothes from a company that really cares,” he said.
In general, Snyder says that all of them are “doing great,” but they do miss Ventura and hope to move back there eventually. For now, however, they are in a holding pattern. “It’s just finding the right place at the right time.”
For the most part, Snyder and Linh have no trouble staying upbeat. But he admitted that “What gets to us is when we go back and revisit the story . . . the tears and the fear . . . all these things come into play, this level of anxiety.”
He also found himself keenly affected by the plight of people living near the erupting Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island. “It just pulls at the strings of my heart,” he said.
The take-away message from his Thomas Fire experience? “I wish I could tell [everybody] to get ready, to be prepared. It could happen at any minute. . . . I’m much more proactive about having a plan.”
“Now it’s the worry of other people’s circumstances that weigh on me.”
Veronica and David James had just relocated to Ventura in June, after years of international travel, when the Thomas Fire destroyed their Hawaiian Village apartment. They initially moved in with parents in Ventura, but wasted no time in finding a place of their own. Having recently been in the market for housing gave them an advantage.
“I knew how tight it was,” Veronica James recalled in a phone interview, “so I immediately started looking. This place had come up, I ran over immediately, and I just grabbed it.”
On Jan. 1, the Jameses moved into an apartment on Pierpont. “It’s tiny,” James admitted. “It’s half the size of what we had before and $400 more a month . . . but it’s nice.”
Getting their lives back on track has proven more difficult, however.
“It takes a lot to rebuild,” James said ruefully. “It’s been really hard. There’s the loss of the stuff that’s totally irreplaceable — everything from my grandmother and great-grandmother is gone. Heirlooms. I was kind of a historian, and all those pictures are just gone. That’s rough.”
Equally hard is the lack of basic household goods that most of us take for granted. James recalled a recent situation where a dear and generous friend brought over enough food to fill the refrigerator and pantry. Included among the supplies was a can of black-eyed peas. David planned on making a stew. James recalls seeing her husband with “the can of peas in his hand and he’s just staring at it. And he said, ‘We don’t have a can opener.’ ”
It is small instances such as these that bring the magnitude of the loss home to James. And she’s still experiencing them. “I lost my main computer. I’m a photojournalist and a travel writer — I lost over 200,000 photos. My husband’s mom just died, and I didn’t have something to wear. That happens at least once a day. . . . Everything is five times harder because you just don’t have the things you know are on hand.”
James admitted that she’s had days over the last six months when she couldn’t get out of bed. But things have been looking up recently. “I have an amazing support network of friends and family,” she said. “And we are starting to enjoy the neighborhood. It’s a nice vibe down here. Our neighbors are great. That’s been very healing.”
Like Chris Snyder, the Jameses did not have insurance. But they were able to access funds raised by the Thomas Fire Benefit Festival, and received help from the Red Cross and the United Way. Her children also started a GoFundMe page.
Now that things seem to be on an upswing, James’ thoughts turn to the others less fortunate. “I’m lucky. I’ve heard word of people who just can’t bounce back,” she said. “Now it’s the worry of other people’s circumstances that weigh on me.”
“Remember: There are people out there that are still reeling and still raw,” she continued, noting that several people are still homeless as a result of the fire. “Don’t forget them. I really worry about them.”
“I still like conveniences but if you lost stuff so be it.”
When Matt Johnson lost his home on Via Ondulando, he didn’t and couldn’t have anticipated how life-altering it would be. He lived with his mother and stepfather when the Thomas Fire engulfed their house but they were all able to relocate to a condo in Port Hueneme, where they still reside. While his drive to work off Victoria Avenue would be a stretch, at least he had a home.
The structural plans for rebuilding were just approved recently, and Johnson said that his family was planning to break ground by July. But first, before approval, they had to get 50 percent of their neighbors to agree to allow the new home to be two feet higher than before.
“There was a lot of disagreeing on City Council over the rebuilding. It was taking too long to get through that process,” he said, noting that at certain meetings the City Council and the mayor seemed to be preoccupied by other, less important things.
“That part didn’t bother me,” Johnson said, stating that there was a sort of domino effect after the fire that led to a whole different perspective on his life. “I lost all of my friends.”
Johnson, who works as a server at a local restaurant, recalled how he had a falling-out with his best friend over a failure to meet on Christmas Eve. In a new environment with few belongings and little cash, that holiday time exacerbated his loss. First his home and prized 4,000-plus DVD collection, which insurance would not replace, and then his friend and the associated social circle. Following this, his perspective started to change.
“I learned not to worry too much about personal possessions,” Johnson said. “We had a whole storage shed outside we kept telling ourselves we would purge and the fire took care of that.”
After losing his friends, he is reevaluating trust.
“It’s really difficult to trust people to begin with, and let’s just say it will be a while before I let anyone get close,” he said.
He said that he wasn’t certain when his new house would be rebuilt, perhaps within a year, but he felt that he was at the precipice of change, though he is also an indecisive person.
“My biggest problem is that I have too much time to think, not busy enough, not seeing friends enough and too much free time,” Johnson said.
He mentioned enrolling in class at Oxnard College, creating visual art again and how he recently shaved off his hair — something that he had never done before. He did, however, start doing karaoke recently, singing being a pastime that he enjoyed. While inside, someone hit his parked car and left.
“I still like conveniences but if you lost stuff, so be it,” Johnson said.
— Michael Sullivan
“We are cutting our losses and moving.”
Erika Lohrenz was not featured in our Dec. 14 story, but reached out to us in May on Facebook with a poignant video expressing her frustration with the rebuilding process. The 50-year Ventura County resident, who lost her Santa Paula home in the fire, specifically called out city and county supervisors for the permits and other regulations required of her before reconstruction could even take place.
“We’ve already spent over $150,000 on permits,” she said in her May 7 video, “and by the time they get through regulating us . . . we won’t have enough money to rebuild. . . . It’s heartbreaking; they are regulating us to death.”
“We were on Koenigstein Road,” said Lohrenz when VCR reached out to her by email. She and her husband had lived on the Santa Paula property for over 40 years. “Our home was right where the transformer blew. With the super-high winds, we had just enough time to grab our animals and get out.”
They’ve been living out of two RVs on their property ever since. While the couple had hoped to rebuild, the mountain of red tape necessary to start the process has proven to be insurmountable.
“At this point, we are cutting our losses and moving,” she explained. “The county has made it so difficult with all their fees, permits and bureaucracy [that] by the time they get through with us, there won’t be enough money left to rebuild. And even if we had the money, we wouldn’t even be able to rebuild for at least a year or so.”
Lohrenz is in the process of buying a home in Acton in Los Angeles County near Antelope Valley.
“We are sad to leave but just want some stability in our lives,” she said. “We have been lied to by Steve Bennett and the bureaucracy in this county. Other people have already left because of this. . . . The stress is intolerable. We just want to get on with our lives.”