VENTURA, Calif. (CN) – More than two weeks after the Thomas Fire first erupted in Southern California’s Ventura County, a majority of the evacuation orders have been lifted. But normality has not yet returned to the lives of residents.
North of the once bucolic beach town of Carpinteria, Mike Vitullo talked his way through several roadblocks several days after he fled from his home.
“I needed to know if it was still there, because I saw a news report that said only one structure was destroyed,” Vitullo said. “I got to one roadblock that was very secure with two trucks blocking the road. A trooper asked me what I was doing. I lied and said a fire chief said I could go see my place.”
Vitullo got through the roadblock and found his rental home burned to the ground, along with his neighbors’ homes. His tin roof lay on a pile of rubble, and a water heater stood off to the side as a sentry over the pile.
“I’ve been going up and down lately. Some days I’m OK with it,” Vitullo said. “Other days I will lose my cellphone and get in a panic, because I don’t want to lose anything else.”
On the way back from his destroyed home, Vitullo confessed to the officer that he had lied earlier.
At more than 1,000 homes destroyed across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, the Thomas Fire is on track to be one of California’s largest wildfires on record. It also caps one of the most destructive years for wildfires on record.
The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. The price to combat it sits at $130.8 million as of Tuesday morning, according to Cal Fire.
Cory Iverson, a firefighter from San Diego, died last week while battling the Thomas Fire as it approached Santa Barbara.
Firefighters say strong winds are expected to kick up again Wednesday night into Thursday morning, so they will be keeping an eye on areas that have yet to burn. The large base camp of firefighters at the Ventura Fairgrounds will begin to break down over the next week and crews who have been on the scene since the fire started will rotate out.
New crews will set up a new camp in Santa Barbara County sometime next week.
Firefighters have attempted to direct the fire to burn in the footprint of previous wildfires. The unseasonably dry weather during what should be the area’s rainy season and strong wind gusts have carried flames to unburned chaparral, according to Rudy Evanson, public information officer for the Thomas Fire.
Off Heidelberg Avenue in Ventura, embers likely sparked a fire that destroyed a family home that was used as an elder care facility. The residents were evacuated before emergency personnel issued evacuation orders.
Nearby homes stood partially damaged, and one was reduced to a pile of rubble. But some homes were undamaged, with Christmas decorations still in place.
Robert Johnson, 58, said he watched the ridgeline glow with flames on the night the fire came close to his home on Heidelberg Avenue. His family evacuated to Oxnard, south of Ventura. In previous wildfires he watched the glow, but those never reached his home. This time they came close.
“I remember I went to bed on the night we were ordered to evacuate. The fire was on one side of the ridge and then a few hours later I woke up and it was on the other side. The wind kicked it up several miles,” Johnson said.
Calla Gold, 59, stayed with a friend who had air filters set up throughout her house, because the ash became too much at her home. The smell of smoke still hangs in the air three weeks after the fire started, and Gold wears an air mask when she runs errands.
“I get sideways looks. People probably think I’m a hypochondriac, but just because you can’t see those particulates that get into the lungs doesn’t mean they’re not there,” said Gold, who watched as a ring of fire burned the hillside down the street from her home in Carpinteria.
Ventura resident Amanda Cline has developed a cough. For three weeks, the air has been heavy with smoke and residents have walked around with air masks. Cline, 25, said Tuesday was one of the first days where the air quality has been bearable.
The evacuation order for her neighborhood has been lifted, but her father Rick Cline does not want his family or their pets to go home just yet.
“He’s afraid about the asbestos that might be in the dust. He thinks it’s not safe yet, so we’re staying with friends in Santa Paula,” said Amanda Cline.
Her family evacuated to the Ventura Fairgrounds, and will spend Christmas and Amanda’s birthday at a friend’s house in nearby Santa Paula.
Red Cross officials did not have an estimate of how many people evacuated to the fairgrounds since the Thomas Fire broke out.
“We’re super blessed to have the first responders being there just protecting us,” Amanda Cline said. “Every time I see one I thank them for protecting the city.”
The Thomas Fire will spill over into 2018, with Cal Fire predicting full containment by Jan. 7.