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A Year After Thomas Fire, Recovery Has Far to Go in Ventura

Wildfire burned more than 1,000 homes — over half of them in Ventura, which has issued just 133 rebuilding permits so far

man looking at papers
Chris Dryden of Ventura visits the Colina Vista lot where his home burned in last year’s Thomas Fire. While many of his neighbors have chosen to sell the lots where their houses once stood, Dryden and his family are determined to rebuild despite obstacles. (Anthony Plascencia / Ventura County Star photo)

A drive through the Ventura hillsides paints the picture. Empty lots cleared of debris sit next to ones with “For Sale” signs staked into the dirt, which are across from fenced-off properties piled high with soil and wooden frames outlining future homes.

This is life a year after the fast-moving Thomas Fire tore a hole in the fabric of a seaside community.

It was for the shortest of periods the biggest fire in modern California history when in December 2017 it burned through 282,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes. Since then, more than a half-million acres have burned throughout the state; thousands more homes have gone down; dozens of people have died in wildfires.

It’s been a year of unpleasant surprises for many Ventura residents. Some water bills came in sky-high, a result of (often) futile attempts to protect homes. Residents learned neighbors could put up homes significantly bigger and taller than what had been there, and they would have no say in the matter.

New building codes designed to result in more sustainable and safer homes translated into money, money and more money.

That’s as the fire revealed just how underinsured some were.

City officials scrambled to help, forgiving some water costs, streamlining the rebuilding process and adopting new regulations designed to let people rebuild their dream homes while maintaining the character of the neighborhood.

“Has it been perfect?” asked Jeff Lambert, the city’s community development director. “No. But we’re all learning together through this process.”

The numbers also tell a story. There have been 133 rebuilding permits issued, about a quarter of the roughly 530 homes that burned in the city. Also, 135 are in the plan-check phase, Lambert said.

That’s nearly half of all homes.

“To me, knowing that neighbors are still hanging in together and trying to rebuild and support each other and not impact each other’s quality of life, I think that’s really a positive,” Lambert said.

Later in December, the first of the residents will return to new homes on familiar spaces. For the rest, it remains a long haul back, if they ever return at all.

Who Can You Trust?

The Zaids knew they’d lost their home when they saw it burning from their security camera early the morning of Dec. 5. That was painful.

people on empty lot Click to view larger
Carl Zaid and daughter Lisa of Ventura visit the Crestone Court property where the family home burned in the Thomas Fire. Despite issues with contractors and other obstacles, the Zaids plan to rebuild on their lot east of Arroyo Verde Park.  (Anthony Plascencia / Ventura County Star photo)

What’s been almost worse has been the yearlong battle with the house’s insurer. Carl Zaid paid into his insurance for decades, he said, and used the same company to cover the family’s other home, his mother’s home, his brother’s home and their business.

“You pay into a system for 40 years, you think it’s going to be there when you need it,” said Carl’s daughter, Lisa Zaid. “It hasn’t come through.”

There have been other disappointments.

An architect hired by the family kept trying to build bigger than what they asked for or could afford; a contractor referred by someone lacked a license and had past bankruptcies.

In the aftermath of the fire, Lisa easily had perspective. The home was filled with material items, and the family was all safe. A year later, the ordeal has taken a somewhat unexpected toll.

“My dad is exhausted and stressed all the time,” she said. “The physical health that people are losing can’t be regained.”

What has been so sad to her is that so many local professionals are the ones taking advantage of the situation.

“I think the community gave this appearance of wanting to come together after the fire,” Lisa said. “This brought out the best and worst in people.”

The Zaids bought the house in 1978, after Carl’s dad moved to Los Angeles. His parents were refugees who had survived the Holocaust. The Ventura home has been the most permanent place the family has ever known. Carl is the American Dream, a hard-working man who worked his way into a home and a business, Lisa said, and she’s disappointed with the way he has been treated.

Yet, the family is hopeful.

“We’ve got a contractor that we trust and knows the limit,” Carl said. “We’re looking at each invoice.”

And Lisa still has perspective. Many refugees today are fleeing violence, “not even knowing which country will take them in,” she said.

As stressful as it has been, she said, they are lucky to have these kinds of problems.

Lost in the Process

To facilitate the rebuilding process, City of Ventura policymakers implemented new zoning that allowed homeowners more flexibility to rebuild.

But what many residents began finding out is the zoning in place before the fire already allowed homeowners to go much bigger and higher than what they had. That’s in part because many houses in the hillsides were “underbuilt.” That is, many were single-story and covered far less of the lot than they were allowed.

Building in a hillside is tricky. People move there for the views, which are protected in the city’s building ordinances. But many also moved there because of the privacy and larger lots many of the homes sat on. Privacy and light aren’t protected.

That’s what drew Deborah and Chris Dryden to their home on Colina Vista.

empty lot Click to view larger
Deborah and Chris Dryden are currently in the plan-check stage of the long rebuilding process for their house on Colina Vista, north of Foothill Road and just east of North Victoria Avenue. (Anthony Plascencia / Ventura County Star photo)

“Although we don’t have ocean views, we bought our properties on these terraced lots specifically for the fact that all the structures were single story and allowed complete privacy from neighboring lots,” Deborah Dryden wrote in a letter to Mayor Neal Andrews and City Councilman Matt LaVere, in urging them to reconsider rebuilding rules.

Homes need only be built 5 feet from a lot line, which means a new two-story house can tower over neighbors’ homes, she wrote.

A few months after the fire, the Drydens’ neighbors received approval for plans to build a two-story house with a viewing deck. It is significantly higher and bigger than what had been there before, Chris Dryden said, and looks directly into their backyard.

“Our whole issue is the privacy,” he said, which will be gone when the new house goes up.

To Dryden, the city has sent mixed signals that have cost money and time. Like the Zaids, the Drydens found themselves underinsured.

Dryden said he feels sorry for the people who just lost their homes in the more recent fires.

“It’s going to be an ugly, dirty, rotten long haul,” he said.

And yet the Drydens are moving forward, too. They have a great builder, Dryden said, who will put up a comfortable home in the city they love. They’re in the plan-check stage, which comes right before a building permit is issued.

Dryden never really hesitated about whether he would rebuild, despite what he sees as some serious missteps by city officials and confusion on the part of policymakers.

“Looking back, I’ll do it all again,” he said.

Beyond the Fallen Homes

The thing about Sandie Moore is she didn’t even live near the fire. She lived in Montalvo, where she watched with horror and heartbreak as the Thomas Fire consumed home after home.

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Sandie Moore and her dog for a time lived in a car after the Thomas Fire. Although her rental home wsa not affected by the flames, the owner sold the house after the wildfire, leaving her without a place to live. (Arlene Martinez / Ventura County Star photo)

Her “granny flat” was attached to a larger house, where her daughter and roommates lived.

But after the fire, the owners seized a hot opportunity to sell, which meant Moore had to find a new place that would take her government-issued housing voucher. She searched for months with no luck, and soon found herself living out of her car, homeless at age 75.

Over the year, she has couch-surfed, spent time at a motel mostly filled with long-term residents on fixed incomes, spent several days at a hospital after suffering a broken pelvis (an injury she got while living in her car, she said), and stayed at a Salvation Army recuperative care facility in Ventura before finally landing in a trailer at Lake Casitas.

She never did find a place in Ventura, so she’s off to a unit on the third floor of a new facility for seniors in Camarillo.

“I call it the prison,” she said. “My friends call it the penthouse.”

The facility was supposed to open in November, but it has been delayed and now she hopes it will open by the middle of January.

Moore has never lived outside of Ventura since she moved there in the 1960s. She wishes she could stay there.

“I was thinking they’d carry me out feet first,” she said of the granny flat she lived in a year ago. “It’s depressing to think there’s no place in Ventura. ... It’s unconscionable.”

As fires again raged in Ventura County last month and deadlier ones in Northern California ravaged towns, it took Moore back to when she watched the Thomas Fire burn.

Her advice for people who just lost homes is not to sit back.

“Don’t let it overtake you,” she said. “Be proactive. Nobody ever gets anywhere by sitting back.

“Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

A City Rebuilds

The night the Thomas Fire broke out on Dec. 4, 2017, water wasn’t available to residents or firefighters, according to multiple accounts. Residents sued the city and other water agencies for that.

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The City of Ventura had issued 133 rebuilding permits by the one-year anniversary of the Thomas Fire. A homeowner gets a sign to show construction can start. (Arlene Martinez / Ventura County Star photo)

They, along with the city, also sued Southern California Edison for allegedly causing the fire. Edison has said its electrical equipment was associated with one of two ignition points of the Thomas Fire.

The official cause of the fire has not been released.

Early on Dec. 5, low water pressures were reported in the city.

“The system lost pressure because water was being drained at a tremendous rate due to the extent of the fire response and due to leaks caused by fire damage,” Ventura Water general manager Kevin Brown said via email.

“Leaks were addressed, backup generators were utilized on electric facilities, and eventually the system was fully re-pressurized.”

But for many, it was too late.

The city has rented 10 temporary generators until it can install permanent ones. The generators will become increasingly necessary because Edison plans possible power shutoffs during red-flag fire warnings or other extreme weather events.

Ventura is also moving forward with plans to connect to State Water and implement a potable reuse program.

“These programs will enable the city and the surrounding communities to receive water through multiuse water pipelines in the event of a disaster or prolonged drought,” Brown wrote.

The city ended up refunding customers just over $31,000 in bills for water used trying to fight the fire.

As Year 2 of the rebuilding phase starts up, it will be a race against the clock. For many residents, homeowners insurance covers a rental for just two years.

“The pressure to get a permit and get under construction and get completed and get occupancy to move in, that’s going to continue to increase,” Lambert said.

Lambert knows the Thomas Fire will fade for many who weren’t directly impacted. But city officials are keeping their focus on the fire, he said, and will continue to until every person who wants to be is back home.

Arlene Martinez is an investigative reporter with the Ventura County Star and can be reached at [email protected]. Follow the Ventura County Star on Twitter: @vcstar. Connect with the Ventura County Star on Facebook. This story is republished with permission.

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