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When pushed into a corner you can either cowardly recoil or stand up straight and come out fighting. My city of Thousand Oaks will always choose the latter.
Wednesday night, just at that moment where dreams drape over the day’s consciousness, through my bedroom sliding door the sound of sirens grew louder. Jolted out of the light sleep, the cacophony was alarming. This area, the cozy confines of one of Americas perennially safest small cities (FBI), the din of sirens and helicopters are a rarity.
My phone pinged. The local newspaper The VC (Ventura County) Star app alerted of a “shooting” at the Borderline Bar, a place I have frequented for the 21 years living here where I’ve enjoyed music and stand up comedians like Adam Carolla and Todd Glass. My first thought was dark: “This is exactly how I learned about the Las Vegas shooting”, awakened to an alert that grew into a horror show.
The sirens had grown in multitude. The helicopters were now many. Living in a deep canyon (topography that would impact me 14 hours later) I have no views beyond the surrounding escarpment of rocky hills and mountains replete with my own personal hiking trails.
I turned on the Roku which in all it’s free glory is rather limited at those rare times you want local news (there are apps for local TV but I’m not a fan of the inane talking head genre). Nothing reported yet. I turned on the Fox News app where blondes and beltway geeks were arguing about the election.
Phone pinged again. First reports of a “mass shooting”.
Ok… now I’m up.
FNC’s “breaking news” swoosh (which nowadays just alerts viewers the commercials are done) repeated what I had just read.
Sirens, more helicopters, and now national news saying my beloved little city’s name in the same sentence as “mass casualty event”.
I texted my ex who lives five minutes away and less than a mile from Borderline. My 18-year-old was safely in bed. School night.
As we all now know the news only got worse. The twelve people that were shot would become twelve dead (plus the man I shall not name, but who graduated my son’s high school).
Kids killed. Our kids. And the brave first responder dedicated to protecting them. All dead in a gruesome scene that both survivors and lifelong police officers will carry for the rest of their lives.
I think I only fell back asleep at dawn only to awaken an hour later to start my day and watch the news. I called my kids. My oldest was a mix of worry and anger. He has his opinions regarding gun violence, as many his age do, which are representative of a generation coping with a sociological malevolence my generation never had to consider during our formative years. My job as he goes to college will be to diligently pull him back to the center. But I understand his angst.
The Borderline backs onto the 101 Freeway and as I was heading toward L.A. for an interview, the traffic at the Borderline was caused by rubbernecking drivers all seeing the massive presence of first responders, media satellite trucks, and parents awaiting word of their missing kids. The broken large pane windows through where college kids jumped escaping with their lives were gaping, and below, shattered glass on the embankment of the now-closed freeway on-ramp.
The hour-long drive into L.A. allowed me to gather my thoughts for my interview with the controversial British politico Katie Hopkins (to be released this week). Do we discuss gun violence? I had chatted with her at an election night party, after which I had planned out the subjects so I decided to stick to my initial game plan.
During the last short interview break my youngest (13) son called. I was worried about him and his reaction to the tragedy so I picked up.
“DAD, YOUR STREET’S ON FIRE. YOUR HOME!!!”
Katie must’ve heard and suggested I go. I immediately did the math. An hour (if lucky) drive and I only had 10 min. left and Katie was leaving town after our interview.
No, I’m here. Let’s finish. the house will either be there or won’t.
I compartmentalized and completed the interview with Katie who was truly a kind, decent, wonderful person. (Don’t believe the twitterverse and online haters). She was so worried about me.
I headed back to T.O. and my car navigation showed the freeway had been closed right where I live. That’s not a good sign.
Knowing a freeway closure would cause a massive back-up I took back roads which were in chaos. People were driving erratically all trying to get home and save loved ones and pets. My phone was pinging with friends and family sending messages and even pictures of my house on television. Our good friend Melissa @6foot2inhighheels, in Michigan, was able to see my home long before I could (and her red Mustang which she has left at my place for her future trips).
After 2 hours of diversions, u-turns and probably breaking a dozen traffic laws, I pulled into my little canyon street where black smoke and flames were ferociously reaching for the sky.
Police had set up a blockade before the curve which prevented me from seeing my neighborhood.
The facemask clad young officer said “Sorry, no entrance. Mandatory evacuation.”
I replied “Sir, I live down there. I need to gather some things. Please!”
“Sorry. No cars. But if you want to walk, we won’t stop you. Just know you are on your own. It’s bad in there and no one can rescue you.”
I turned left into the parking lot of the community park, jumped out my car and ran. Around the curve, it became clear the officer wasn’t exaggerating. My street was a tunnel of black, gray and orange.
Across the street from my development, an R.V. storage yard with high-end toys was ablaze. Black smoke, $100,000-second homes, popping transformers, and 50-foot flames. The hill behind the yard, where I have hiked weekly, was completely burned.
My lungs quickly reminded me I was breathing this all in, so I ran to my development. Firefighters were spraying water at several burning structures next to my two-story home.
Entering my house I immediately realized I had left some upstairs windows open as the smoke was so thick I could barely see the walls across my living room.
There was no power but the numerous smoke detectors were piercing my ears as I ran upstairs in the daytime darkness directly to my safe. I pulled some personal papers, passport and went to my bathroom and grabbed my toiletry bag, and then my laptop, phone charger, and threw a couple days clothes into a duffel while running into rooms closing windows. I then noticed the footprints. Half an inch of gray ash atop my dark hardwood flooring could have been almost mistaken for a moon landing shot.
There was water coming from somewhere. Must be firefighters. I looked out the window. Flames were 20 feet away and thirty feet high. The hillsides were all on fire. The heat was blistering. Crackling manzanitas and small structures all burning loudly along with sirens, smoke detectors, wind gusts, and helicopters all added to the concert-level decibels.
I tripped down the ashy staircase, ran to the kitchen and looked for Melissa’s car keys in a drawer and left. The heat from the flames was real. A masked firefighter was pointing at me gesturing to leave. I jumped into the dirty red pony, navigated around the fire crews and got out of Dodge.
I didn’t look back as I believed the home wouldn’t survive.
It’s just stuff.
It’s just stuff.
I went back to the park and started coughing up 20 min worth of toxic air. The park was populated with spot fires and gawkers watching the hills burning.
I left Melissa’s car safely in the middle of the parking lot and head over to my ex’s house where I expected to find my kids.
My oldest wasn’t there. He was out with his journalism team doing interviews regarding Borderline and was trying to make it to the vigil but ended up being stuck and had to stay overnight at a friends house. At least he was safe.
Because the freeway shut down, dozens of cars lined the overpass. I would later see them sleeping in their cars for the night as I went back out trying to find a cell signal.
Freeway closed. Fire and brimstone all around and stranded drivers. It looked like the beginning of a dystopian movie.
Night number two without sleep as the 40-60 mile an hour wind gusts kept us awake while watching the encroaching fire from the South East. News of voluntary and mandatory evacuations now was impacting most of our city. Neighbors were determining what to bring and leave. Hudson, the wonder golden retriever was anxious and barking at the window as coyotes and other hillside wildlife poured into the streets fleeing from certain death.
I monitored wind patterns, local news and eyeballed it. We will stay. Neighbors were pouring out and filling the 4 a.m. streets all to experience rush hour conditions heading toward LA.
Dawn. The wind was still howling as it would for another couple of days. Thankfully no structures were directly threatened near my kids home.
But the fire had become two. The “Hill” Fire, which was large in its own right and had lapped at my doorstep was now the lesser concern. The “Woolsey” Fire, blew up into a seven-headed hydra and quickly galloped toward Malibu while destroying many homes and historic places. 150,000 people were evacuated. Hundreds of structure burned.
As it stands right now, and the numbers will certainly increase, I am learning of several friends who lost everything.
Houses, like mine, survived while next door structures burned to the ground. No rhyme or reason, just where wind-carried embers fly, which I learned could land up to sixty miles away.
As everyone knows, houses can be replaced. Stuff is stuff… Once the fires are put out, once people rebuild (which can take a minor miracle in regulation-laden California) they will move on with their lives.
Yet, there are our neighbors who lost more than homes. Our community didn’t have time to grieve the horrifying mass shooting at Borderline.
The teen center where families came to find out if their college-aged kids survived later the same day turned into an evacuation center where some of the survivors had to return as their homes were threatened. These are parents, brothers, sisters, and friends who are coping with funerals and memorials and unbelievable sadness. Vigils have popped up, attended by neighbors and strangers alike, all while we looked at the dark smoke-filled sky.
Thousand Oaks is a city that is filled with generosity and love. It is a small refuge of common sense and patriotic people who are focused on family, community, and country. This one-two punch occurred literally hours apart and while we are hurting, we are not down. We will heal. We are strong.
To donate: the Rotary Club has set up a fund which will provide relief and financial support to the victims and families of this tragic Thousand Oaks mass shooting. To donate for the victims of the wildfires see the Wildfire Relief Foundation.Published in