“People are tired of seeing fire victims,” says Laurie Gutierrez, retired RN, as we sit in the shade of a blue tarp alongside her RV. “We’re not sponging off the system. More than anything, I’d like to be back in a position where I was caring for others.”
With the Thomas Fire growing around them on Dec. 5, 2017, Gutierrez, her husband and son were given four minutes to grab and go. The sheriff said they’d be back in 48 hours. Into their two cars they packed their two little dogs, the guinea pigs and supplies for two days.
As their rented home in Matilija Canyon turned to ash, they were registering with the Red Cross at Nordhoff evacuation center. They drove through fire to Carpinteria for the night, Buellton after that, stayed in a Motel 6 room on Seaward in Ventura, then another one on Johnson Drive and ended up at the Hummingbird Inn in Ojai.
And they quickly realized that what they’d worn and grabbed in those four minutes was all they had of their former life. The Gutierrez family, like many others whose houses were destroyed, had to figure out how to rebuild their lives.
County services and HELP of Ojai helped them with the motel expenses, but at the Hummingbird Inn there was a mix-up around payment. They were evicted hours after Gutierrez confirmed with Ventura County Public Health that all was paid in full. But it was a holiday weekend, and there were no rooms at the inns.
A former patient connected Gutierrez with a gentleman who offered her his RV for as long as she and her family needed. That first day, they parked on the street in front of a friend’s house. Melissa Livingston at Ventura Co. Public Health contacted Joe Evans, director of the Snowbird Program at Lake Casitas, who immediately gave them a parking spot at the lake.
A few days later, the RV owner agreed to sell the rig to the Gutierrez family. They put together $5,000 with help from family members, and United Way paid the balance. “I lost everything,” says Gutierrez, “but I gained so much more. The compassion, love and support is more than I could have ever bought in my lifetime. That’s how much it meant.”
Gutierrez and family had an advantage over other fire victims suddenly living in RVs — Evans put the family into the Lake Casitas Snowbird Program that costs only $30 per night rental. But they had to leave by April 14, ahead of the summer season, and move into county parks where the daily rates also increased for peak season.
Greater Goods of Ojai helped Gutierrez a lot with rent, but other RV residents —Brian and Kimberly Smith — are living in their trailer and scraping by on their disability income. The Smiths had just settled into a place in Ventura a couple of months before the Thomas Fire wiped it out, and they escaped in the RV in which they’d come to the city.
“It’s been really hard, but we’re hoping to make it work,” says Kimberly. “There’s so many people in our situation. We ended up parking under a bridge by the fairgrounds because a guy allowed us to. We tried to do resource hunting for another place, but we have two dogs and are on a limited income, so there weren’t places available.”
St. Vincent de Paul and the county’s Rapid Rehousing and Homeless Assistance Program said they’d help with rental assistance, if the Smiths could find a place. But the list of demands was prohibitive — no couples, no dogs, too little income. The Smiths wanted to park in front of Brian’s mom’s house but it cost $100 every day or two for a permit.
And the city’s other restrictions nixed the possibility of parking on the street: An oversized vehicle parked on a residential street has to be registered for the address where it’s parked; there’s a 10-day parking limit; the vehicle must be for sale.
“We’ve tried to rent lots and driveways,” said Kimberly, “but you can’t live in your trailer on private land unless it’s designated for RV parking. The police will fine us if they see the lights on in an RV parked in a driveway. And some people will talk about doing a hushed-up deal for you to park on their land, then after the whole conversation is over say they want extra fees for this or that.”
According to Brian Smith, police enforcement got a lot worse after the fire. While they were searching for housing in Ventura before the fire, living in their RV wasn’t difficult. “We were even told by the Ventura police where we could park. Now, they will cite you and take your rig, legal or not; they just send a tow truck.”
Many times the police blocked off streets and cited everyone living in their vehicles: for sleeping in your car, for living in your RV, for parking an oversize vehicle on city streets between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Each of those citations can cost $120.
“I’ve gotten quite a few tickets,” says Mark Webb, RV resident. “The police make you move around a lot. The CHP is the worst because they are just traffic cops, so all they do is ride around and write tickets. From what I understand, the city police … man, they’re harassing people — writing tickets left and right.”
Even if those with RVs can afford the high RV park rental of around $100 per day, they may still be prohibited from staying. RV parks refuse vehicles older than 15 years, or if there are luggage racks or air conditioning units on the top.
The Smiths, like the Gutierrez family and Webb, are currently “boondocking” — parking on rural roads with no access to water or sewage dumping and, often, no shade. “We try to leave a light footprint and stay a couple days then move on,” Brian Smith says. “We don’t like to, but sometimes we get a room. It depends on what we can afford. Because this living, believe it or not, is more expensive than you think.”
Food costs are higher because they cannot buy large quantities to save money. Heating the oven is expensive because it uses a lot of fuel. If they can’t afford a room, instead they pay $25 to empty their RVs sewage tanks and refill the fresh water tanks. Their generator goes through $5 per day in fuel. They pay a gym membership in order to shower, work out and just feel as though they’re living life. “A 27-foot trailer gets real small after a while.” Fuel, gym and dumping costs run them about $400 per month. And then there are the laundromat costs.
Staying in RV parks is expensive. In the state or county parks, nightly fees can be $31-$40 including dumping sewage tanks and refilling water. Lake Casitas costs $50 per night, but $65 if you want sewer and water services.
“The most expensive thing is the stress,” says Kimberly. “We’ve aged 10 years in the last six months because we’re being pushed away.”
Gutierrez agrees. “I’ve had multiple sclerosis (MS) for 15 years and it’s never hurt this much as it has these past six months. Stress and heat with my MS is really hard, and exhaustion makes it hard to think. I’m learning to deal with that, and a lot of it is emotional and spiritual.
Some of what helps her is the dedicated support she’s gotten from Jayn, her case manager at HELP of Ojai. “Jayn Walters at HELP of Ojai has been my case manager,” Gutierrez says. “I don’t have words to explain — she’s been over and above. I’ve gotten texts from her at 8 p.m. telling me about opportunities and to maybe go for housing, clothing or whatever. I so appreciate her heart.”
HELP of Ojai received $685,000 in goods and financial donations that it distributed to hundreds of fire victims and impacted Ojai Valley residents through their Community Assistance Program (CAP). HELP’s main Thomas Fire Relief Project ran from December 2017 through April 2018, although the agency has reserved funds to continue assisting with housing through the fiscal year ending in summer 2019.
“Our motto has been ‘like for like,’ ” says Walters, “in that, if you were a renter before, we are helping with rental assistance. If you were in a tiny home or trailer, and it was applicable for the appropriate person, we would help sponsor that as well. It was limited to a total of 11 trailers.
“But the county has put very, very strict requirements on people for trailers and where to park them. People can’t put a trailer on their own property after the fire. To get a permit to put a fifth wheel on your personal property, you have to go through pretty much planning out your whole rebuild: have a lot of the inspections done, have debris removed, have soil tested and have a drawing of what you want your house to look like.
“But it’s especially hard for uninsured homeowners who just paid rent at some temporary place. So they’re just trying to do this as affordably as possible. And they’re just not able to really move on. Folks who are in a trailer, they’re as close as they can get to their home. And that’s not ideal either.
“Those we helped with an actual trailer aren’t in any type of park anymore because the county has ended the extended-stay option. And the only park that was in Ojai proper wouldn’t allow people to stay longer.
“This is where it’s hard. Some people are putting [trailers] on their property illegally; those aren’t necessarily our people. I think there are people who aren’t even necessarily living in them anymore at this point because they were going from campground to campground but couldn’t stay.
Walters is case manager to many fire victims who long to get back and rebuild their homes, and their lives. “It’s important for people to know that the permitting process is really difficult for homeowners — specifically, homeowners who were uninsured or underinsured.”
People like the Gutierrez family are an example. They tried, unsuccessfully, to get their landlord to cut and remove 300-plus palm fronds from the property, but she refused. Because of that hazard, they couldn’t get renter’s insurance.
“I think a lot of people want to be back on their property,” Walters says. “Now it’s six months out and I don’t have a single homeowner on my list who’s moving forward with the rebuild yet.”
Through all the trauma and grief, the positive side of the human spirit shines. “I believe everybody’s trying to do their best,” says Gutierrez. She had been shocked to see 10 firefighters in the motel room next to them in Carpinteria. “I asked them why, and they said, ‘If we were to pay for lodging, we’d have nothing to send home.’ What they make in a day wouldn’t even cover food and lodging. Now, that’s my goal — to change that.”
“He’s my hero,” Kimberly Smith says about her husband of 25 years. “He’s learned to do so many things — it’s been amazing watching him. We thought we knew what was happening, and then the fire changed all that. So we look at it like, at least we have the experience and know we can manage.”
Sean Ryan is new to RV living and managing his expenses. But in the county or state parks, he’s found neighborly concern. “It’s funny, but the people most in need of help are the ones most likely to give the help.”
For Walters, her dedicated efforts have been a labor of love. “It’s such a hard time for people. I’ve met just such incredible people who are so resilient. So it’s been sad, but I’m thankful to have the opportunity to work with the people I’ve worked with through this fire. That includes the survivors themselves and other agencies.”