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Thomas Fire destruction leaves behind shocked, surprised residents

Chris Cairns carries his grandson's bicycle out of the ashes of his garage on Foothill Road in Ventura.
Chris Cairns carries his grandson's bicycle out of the ashes of his garage on Foothill Road in Ventura.
Emily Guerin/KPCC

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The Thomas Fire in Ventura County has torn through more than 50,000 acres and forced tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes, at least 150 of which have been destroyed.

But the devastation came seemingly at random. Near Arroyo Verde Park in Ventura, one side of Foothill Road saw homes reduced to smoking piles of ash. On the other side, orange trees and green lawns flanked houses untouched by the blaze.

All across Ventura, residents seemed dumbstruck that a massive firestorm had completely upended the sense of security and stability they had placed in their neighborhoods. 

"I grew up here, and it just seemed like the fires were always on mountains, far away," said Armando Rey, a resident of Wall Street near the historic San Buenaventura Mission. "I just didn't imagine it would happen here." 

KPCC caught up with Armando and other Ventura residents in the aftermath of destruction. Here are their stories:

'I THOUGHT WE WERE IN THE CLEAR'

Chris and Nancy Cairns had just finished assembling the last bar chair in their new home on Foothill Road on Monday night. It was something of a dream home: it had avocado, orange and lemon trees, a chicken coop and a view of the ocean. They had done some simple remodeling and bought new appliances and furniture.

Around bedtime, the couple knew a fire was burning to the east of them. They just didn't think it would ever reach their neighborhood. "I thought we were in the clear," Chris said. 

That all changed around 3:30 am when Chris’ daughter called and told him downtown Ventura was filling with smoke. He went outside and saw flames racing down the hill and embers hitting his house.

Chris Cairns hugs family friends near the ashes of his home on Foothill Road in Ventura.
Chris Cairns hugs family friends near the ashes of his home on Foothill Road in Ventura.
Emily Guerin/KPCC

“We had maybe seven to 10 minutes to grab the dogs, grab the cats. I didn’t have any clothes except the clothes on my back. We drove out the driveway as [an] electrical pole exploded,” he said.

When they arrived at a friend’s house, they saw their house on TV. It was on fire.

When they came back in the morning, it was reduced to a chimney, a foundation and piles of ash and charred metal. Chris’ Harley Davidson and his Ford F-250 were blackened, as was his grandson’s bicycle.

Not touched, though, was his grandson’s favorite swing, which hung from a tree in the corner of the yard.

“That’s some kind of higher power working for us,” he said.

“Saying you’re going to be OK."

'WE DIDN’T HAVE TIME TO PACK ANYTHING'

About four miles away at his apartment building on Wall Street, Armando Rey knew there was a fire in Santa Paula, but he thought it was too far away to worry. So he went to sleep. Then, around 10 p.m., his roommate woke him up. They went out on the balcony, which looked out on the steep hillsides of Grant Park.

He could feel the heat. The wind was gusting, and he could hear the crackling of flames.

“We didn’t have time to pack anything, that’s how fast the fire was moving," he said. "It was like grab what you can and get out."

Steep hillsides of Grant Park in Ventura burned all the way down to the backyards of homes like this one on Cedar Street.
Steep hillsides of Grant Park in Ventura burned all the way down to the backyards of homes like this one on Cedar Street.
Emily Guerin/KPCC

He got in his car. Neighbors were going door to door, telling each other to get out. The electricity was out, so the traffic signals were down. It was dark and ashy, and everyone had to drive very slowly. Armando headed towards his niece’s place in Oxnard. When he got on the 101 and cleared the mountains behind him, he realized how big the fire was.

"It was just going for miles and miles and miles," he said. "And it was just like, there's no way they're controlling this.”

But Armando was one of the lucky ones. His home, his belongings, his apartment building were all in tact when he got back the next morning. 

PROTECTING MOM’S HOUSE

When Travis Downey and Bennett Collings answered the door on Foothill Road on Tuesday, one was carrying a beer and the other, a shovel. They had dirt on their faces and under their fingernails. The brothers, both in their 20s, had spent the morning dumping dirt onto small fires that had sprung up in the backyard of their mother’s house. They had already emptied the fish pond after the waterline had been cut, and now water was hard to come by.

The back deck had been on fire, so they put that out. Then the phone pole out back caught fire, so Collings scrambled 30 feet up to put it out, fire extinguisher in hand. Now they were covering the ducts on the house to protect it from embers and rounding up all the cushions from the yard furniture. 

Neither brother expected a fire to get this close.

Firefighters stand in the rubble of a home on the corner of Foothill and Day roads in Ventura. The houses next door were unscathed.
Firefighters stand in the rubble of a home on the corner of Foothill and Day roads in Ventura. The houses next door were unscathed.
Emily Guerin/KPCC

“This is absolutely outrageous. I never thought I would experience this,” said Collings, who evacuated from his apartment in downtown Ventura Monday night after flames nearly engulfed city hall.

They looked over to what was left of Chris Cairns house next door.

“It’s being very choosy with the houses,” Downey said. “We’re very lucky.”