My heart has been heavy all day. December 4th will forever be marred in my mind as a day associated with pain, sadness and loss. A year ago today at around 7:30pm, my family and I heard news of a fire that had started near my sister’s riding school in Santa Paula 14 miles east, about a 20 minute drive from us in Ventura. The next several hours are honestly kind of a blur. We lost power and received numerous texts from friends closer to the fire that it was time for us to start packing our bags. It wasn’t until 10:30pm, that we received an amber alert on our phones that said we were in a mandatory evacuation zone. At the time, I was getting calls and texts from friends saying that they didn’t know where to evacuate to because every hotel in town was at maximum capacity. My friend Jessica who lives about 15 minutes away in a town south west of us offered sanctuary at her place. Our biggest concern was for my mom’s new lungs, which we had been gifted only six months before and was very sensitive to bad air quality.
My sister and I began to frantically load her car with valuables and a few changes of clothes. We could see bright orange flames creeping up over the hill directly behind our house and were doing our best to just stay focused on what we needed to do. Once everything we could think of was packed, I thought of our sweet German Shepherd, Nina. She had been suffering serious neurological issues since my mom had been in the hospital earlier that year having had countless seizures and wasn’t herself at all. I found her outside in the backyard and began screaming at her with tears rolling down my face telling her that it was time to go. My mom finally came out and told me to just leave her if we had to, she wouldn’t budge from where she was lying on the grass, it’s like she knew what was coming and had just given up. I thought I would never see her again.
*We ended up having to put her to down a few weeks later, the day before New Years Eve because the vet thought she had a brain tumor and irreversible damage.
After arguing with my parents trying to convince them that it was time to go, and that risking my mom’s health after having gone through so much with her transplant wasn’t worth it, their stubbornness was unwavering. They had built their entire life in this home for the last twenty plus years and weren’t willing to leave it just yet. My sister and I got in her car and I began to drive. As we got down the hill from our house, Sarah said to me, “Aly, don’t look back,” and as I did, my stomach dropped as I watched walls of flames engulf the hills of our neighborhood, our street, maybe even our home.
The traffic was so thick with people in packed cars trying to flee flames and smoke. We finally made it down to Jessica’s house and immediately began calling my mom trying to figure out when she was going to evacuate. I regretted not forcing her to get in the car with me, looking back I wasn’t thinking straight- none of us were. A kind neighbor called me and told me that she and her husband had made sure my mom got out and she was driving down to meet my sister and I. After being so terrified to lose here in the hospital before and during her transplant, we weren’t willing to lose her now, which may sound dramatic, but it felt that way in the moment. My dad and dog were still at home. My dad is a Scorpio and the most stubborn and proud person I know. He and his brothers had saved their home from a devastating fire in LA in the 70s and I think he thought he would do it again now.
We didn’t get a wink of sleep that night. Since the power was still out nearly everywhere, the only updates we could really get on where the fire was and what was happening was from social media namely VC Scanner on Twitter. We watched videos from neighbors posting videos of fires in their backyards and on the hill sides a block from our home. We were so worried about my dad being there, but he would give us updates every hour or so saying that he and some of the neighbors had put out spot fires before the firefighters came to the rescue.
The following days were continued hell as we moved to my grandma’s house and received news of countless friends who had lost their homes. We cried a very steady stream of tears that day. One of my closest friends lost everything including her car, another wasn’t allowed back up to her neighborhood to see if her home was still standing or not. It was devastating.
When we finally returned home after a couple days, Ventura looked like a war zone. The air was so thick with smoke that the sky was permanently tinged a murky yellow. Something that will always stick with me, is the way the sun casts eery orange shadows on the ground when there’s smoke in the air.
My sister and I decided to walk a few blocks taking in the devastation in total disbelief. We were wearing n95 masks but in hindsight, it wasn’t great to be out in that air. We passed homes that were still smoldering and some that had nothing left at all. We walked by electrical workers trying to fix power lines and we stomped out smokey spots in backyards as we looked on at scenes from battles people had fought with rakes and hoses. In many places, it looked like fire fighters and civilians had stood on back porches and stopped the fire from within a foot of their house.
For weeks after the fire, it felt like we were living in a strange purgatory with no end in site. There were military personnel blocking off certain streets to keep looters out of decimated vacant neighborhoods. There were exhausted fire fighters camped out all over town. I can’t remember when the smoke began to dissolve, but it must’ve been close to a month or more.
Now’s the time to add that the night before the fire started, my family and I had been at UCLA’s Annual Heart & Lung Transplant Holiday Party and reliving trauma from that experience. Hearing tragic stories of people losing loved ones and what it means to be from a donor family. These stories were hard to digest to say the least.
2017 was full of pain and tragedy that I am still not ready to relieve, but because of those experiences I learned things like grace and strength and resilience that really can’t be taught. I remember getting back into our home with my mom after we were positive that the fire was heading away from us and looking into her eyes and saying, “I think God saved our house because we couldn’t have handled anything else this year.”
In a way, I feel guilty recalling my experience of the Thomas Fire because we still have a home while so many people I know lost everything- and especially after this year’s recent Woosley Fire and devastating Camp Fire. But I know from personal experience that finding community in traumatic situations can be healing, and I hope someone who needs to read this will and know that they can rise from the ashes to start a new.
Healing is often depicted as beautiful and romantic in movies, tv shows or books. But it actually happens in those moments when you summon the courage to crack your heart back open and work through what made it hurt so much in the first place. I’ve done a lot of inner work this year, in fact it’s been my sole focus and I can say that I am a better and more emphatic person because of it.
I hope that my sharing can inspire you to do the same.