As the Thomas fire epidemic reached its 12th day, members of the Ventura community gathered at Buena High School’s Dr. A.W. McConnell Auditorium at 3 p.m. on Saturday for a meeting that touched on a wide variety of topics pertaining to the fire, including precautionary measures to take and the potential risks in the upcoming days. The informational session itself lasted roughly one hour, while 20 minutes were allotted at the end of the meeting to answer questions submitted by the attendees.
Matt LaVere, Deputy Mayor of Ventura, began the session on a positive note, stating that all evacuation orders had been lifted in the City of Ventura and addressing the Local Assistance Center (LAC) that has opened at the Poinsettia Pavilion. LaVere also recognized one firefighter who “gave his life to protect our community.”
The 32-year-old firefighter, identified as Cory Iverson, “died a hero” on Thursday, Dec. 14 while battling the Thomas fire. A brief moment of silence followed in memory of Iverson. LaVere acknowledged that while “it’s been a tough week for everyone,” the support and willingness of the community has been “uplifting.”
Steve Bennett, District 1 Supervisor in the county of Ventura, emphasized the precise handling of the fire situation over the past 12 days. He described the response to be one of “remarkable speed” and the quick decisions made by the fire department helped minimize the damage in what was the “fastest moving fire in Ventura County’s history.”
Bennett also reassured the attendees that “we’re getting answers everyday as we go along in this process.”
Dan Paranick, Ventura’s Assistant City Manager, also noted the “resilience, passion [and] generosity” that the City of Ventura has displayed in reaction to the circumstances caused by the fire.
David Endaya, the fire chief at the Ventura Fire Department (VFD), admitted that “pain, frustration [and] anger” were present among many when reacting to the damages caused by the fire.
“As a fire chief, there is no greater difficulty than losing one of your own,” he said.
However, the “unprecedented patience and understanding” that has been exercised by the community has eased some of the tension among firefighters while “cooperating in this disaster.”
Endaya continued by recognizing the courageous actions displayed by the firefighters, especially “their ability to adapt and overcome.”
“We may be a small department, but I would put [Ventura County’s] firefighters up against any other department around,” he said. “I could not be more proud and I hope you share that [feeling] with me.”
As of Saturday, a red flag warning is still being issued to Ventura County. According to CAL FIRE, a red flag warning is “the highest alert” and “during these times, extreme caution is urged by all residents, because a simple spark can cause a major wildfire.” Endaya assured the crowd that “what we do is truly for the city’s safety,” and urged people to listen to directions given by officials and alert systems.
Dave Russell, a deputy incident commander for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, spoke on the current state of the fire, which has since traveled to Santa Barbara County. According to Russell, the fire has reached 259,000 acres with 35 percent containment. The fire department brought all of their resources to Santa Barbara County over the past few days, as the weather forecast predicted gusts of wind anywhere between 25-45 miles per hour.
Russell explained that the winds were “a huge concern,” but it was necessary for the firefighters to continue combatting the fire. At one point, the wind had reached 65 miles per hour, but he noted that the wind speeds have steadily decreased since then.
Russell added that the fire department will remain “to support the efforts going forth” in Ventura County and that they “will be there until the end [of the fire].”
Areas that were evacuated or damaged by the fire will be repopulated “when it’s safe to do so,” according to Russell. He declared it to be “the number one priority” besides the current priorities of fighting the active fire.
Police Chief Ken Corney addressed the issue of increased looting and criminal behavior in Ventura County since the Thomas fire. There were 15 members of the National Guard stationed in Ventura County to help combat the criminal activity, but Corney said that they were “pulled out” on Saturday and sent to Santa Barbara. According to Corney, 14 residential burglaries have occurred but no arrests were made directly related to the crimes. However, he mentioned that there has been about 70 arrests indirectly related to those crimes and about 50 traffic stops were made in these areas. He noted the importance of the “see something, say something” rule, encouraging residents to report suspicious activity.
Overall, Corney stated that he is “very proud of what the police department has done” so far.
Ventura County Public Health Officer Dr. Robert Levin discussed re-entry in neighborhoods and protective gear that should be worn in areas with high amounts of ash. Re-entry in destroyed homes should be approached more cautiously than re-entry in intact homes surrounded by ash, but Levin listed the essentials for staying safe in these environments.
When searching for valuables, Levin recommends “dressing appropriately.” First and foremost, the individual must wear a N-95 mask to prevent excess smoke from entering the lungs. In addition, the following items must be worn: a long sleeve shirt, pants, gloves, a head covering and boots that are extremely durable. If possible, he recommends to wear shoes that have a steel sole to avoid stepping on scattered nails from the damaged framework of the house, as the nailscan potentially cause “bone infection,” according to Levin.
The public health officer also mentioned that “the further your home is, the smaller chance that the air contains contaminated ash” to provide an idea of who is most susceptible to the harmful effects of the ash.
For houses that are still intact and are surrounded by ash, Levin recommends sweeping the ash up “gently” or using “household vacuums.” The ash “may be disposed in the regular garbage,” Levin said.
Matt Carroll, Ventura’s Assistant County Executive Officer, urged the attendees to register for opportunities that deal with debris removal. The programs that assist with debris removal and other tasks can be found at Ready Ventura County’s website.
Chris Stevens of the Ventura County Resource Management Agency stated that a request for formal assistance had been made to the county. Formal assistance includes the removal of hazardous wastes in households and the removal of remaining fire debris. Both of these services will come at no cost to the property owner, according to Stevens.
Glenn Shephard, director of Ventura County’s Watershed Protection District (WPD), addressed the prospects of possible rain that Ventura may be receiving. Shephard added that “we know [the rain] is going to come” and with the current situation, excess rain may cause flooding. Therefore, the city will “dust off” its El Niño safety plans from a few years back. Shephard also mentioned that “we will have advanced notice” if it does rain to add an extra layer of security in the case of possible evacuation.
Barry Zimmerman, director of the Ventura County Human Services Agency, advertised the services available at the Poinsettia Pavilion. He highlighted more than 20 organizations that are currently present at the Pavilion, including nine state agencies. The state agencies may be able to reproduce important items lost in the fire, such as a driver’s license, a passport, and other things of that nature.
Tully Clifford, Ventura’s Public Works Director, informed the attendees about the current trash collection service in the City of Ventura. Among the regulations that he mentioned were to not put extra trash outside of the barrel and to not put spoiled food in the recycling bin or the yard waste bin. Clifford acknowledged that regular trash services would resume on this upcoming Wednesday, Dec. 20.
As the session came to an end, personal dilemmas were resolved as citizens inquired about the upcoming week and the post-fire conditions in the 20-minute Q&A period.
Endaya warned the attendees to have “no complacency whatsoever” with the fire conditions in the City of Ventura. According to Endaya, “Ventura is not out of the woods” when considering potential susceptibility to another fire in the near future. There is “a lot” left to burn and “every single structure that is combustible” should be considered a feasible threat.