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Ventura councilman says Thomas Fire destroyed hundreds of homes

Fire crews at the Ventura County Fairgrounds prepare to fight the Thomas Fire on Dec. 7, 2017. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

For two days, officials overseeing the battle against the Thomas Fire in Ventura County have not updated the public on the number of homes destroyed by the still-expanding blaze, saying the estimate stood at 150 because they have not been able to survey the damage.

Now a Ventura councilman says the toll will be in the hundreds.

“We can say with some confidence that we anticipate the number of homes destroyed, lost, or damaged will rise significantly," Ventura Councilman Erik Nasarenko told KPCC. “We are now stating publicly that there are hundreds of homes that have been lost in the city of Ventura.”

Nasarenko said the city’s count is not over, but so far it has revealed that the neighborhoods of Skyline, Clearpoint, Ondulando, and the hills above Ventura High School and downtown have lost many homes.

For the city’s residents who have had their homes destroyed or heard from friends, neighbors and family that they’d lost homes, the updated, although still-vague, estimate was heart-rendering.

“That’s devastating,” said Bret Draves about the councilman’s estimate. Draves evacuated his home on Monday but neighbors told him it was still standing “I didn’t expect our home to be there when we got back. I really didn’t. Thank goodness it was.”

Draves and other Ventura residents were frustrated that they couldn’t get updated information about the extent of the fire’s damage in their community. In the absence of that information, residents have been creating their own tallies.

“I feel like it’s been more than 150 [homes burned],” Ronnie Ray Gutierrez said. “I’ve had friends and family, you know, on social media, phone calls, and stuff telling me that there’s been a lot more disasters … that their houses have burned down.”

Officials said the grim job of counting the lost homes is the responsibility of city emergency services staff and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. But confronted by the councilman's comments, the department stood its ground.

“The number that we’re sticking with is 150 [structures burned],” said Ventura County Sheriff’s spokesman Kevin Donoghue. “We have different jurisdictions and different city governments involved. That number could change, but we haven’t really had damage assessment teams into the evacuated areas and the places where there’s been structural damage to give us a count. We’re still fighting the fire and that’s the primary focus.”

Strong winds on Thursday raise the likelihood that the fire will take more days to contain, fire officials said, meaning it will take at least that long before the extent of the structural devastation is known.