Wednesday, July 18 , 2018, 12:22 am | Mostly Cloudy 65º


Moorpark Engineer Turns Fire Assistance Advocate

Moorpark's Greg Gillis-Smith is a construction project manager by day, a former space mechanism engineer for NASA, and an unsung hero of the Thomas Fire.


On the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 5, Gillis-Smith started a Facebook group called Thomas Fire Info.

He said he saw the benefits Facebook groups gave to communities that had experienced the Northern California Santa Rosa fires and Pier Fire, and he thought a similar place for impacted residents to connect online would be helpful.

Gillis-Smith's Facebook group became an online lifeline of sorts for many homeowners, tenants, and even first-responders.
Posts included:

Request for help
Missing animals and found animals
Short-term rentals
Long-term rentals
Free items being offered for those who had lost their homes
FEMA and insurance information
To-do lists from fire survivors from other areas
Offers for clothing
Offers for mattresses, store discounts

Also on the page were Gillis-Smith's own researched posts about fire patterns, how individuals can protect themselves, how they can help, and how those in potential flood areas can prepare.

The Facebook group grew to nearly 22,000 members, and Gillis-Smith personally approved members and moderated the page, he said.

The page was not intended for sales pitches and Gillis-Smith said he has ensured the page remains an information source. He shared this page with a few friends, and due to the power of social media, it grew into a trusted resource.

In times of disaster, a common occurrence is for people to place blame. Gillis-Smith carefully moderates the group and when posts are un-supported and do not include useful information that has been confirmed, they are removed, he said.

Gillis-Smith has been volunteering in a leadership capacity with the Boy Scouts of America for more than 10 years.

After building a personal vacation cabin in the Sequoias, he was elected by neighbors to head a volunteer fire brigade. He completed Oxnard College's fire program and was trained through Wildland Firefighting.

During the Pier Fire that occurred near Gillis-Smith's cabin in the Sequoias, he put his training to action.

During the January flooding in Montecito and Summerland, Gillis-Smith participated in rescue efforts. As cell-phone lines were down in many areas, he used Facebook as a means of posting updates and offering to help.

Within minutes of such an offer, a Thomas Fire Info group member posted the address where a relative lived and said he'd been unable to contact her following the flooding. He was concerned for the safety of his relative and her children.

Gillis-Smith happened to be near that location, and was able to visit the address and locate the missing survivors, who were still awaiting rescue. This is one example of the power of social media in times of disaster, he said.

Following the floods, Gillis-Smith said he was struck with the realization that the Ventura and Santa Barbara county communities are suffering, and that while hundreds of individuals are able to obtain financial support through their insurance companies and other means, members of the arts community often do not fit into the typical constructs of society.

Dozens of artists, musicians, photographers and performers lost their homes, their studios or both to the fires and floods.

Other artists wanted to help, and Gillis-Smith was inspired to create the Thomas Arts Festival as a way to bring communities together in support of the arts.

The Thomas Arts Festival is scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Ventura Unified School District Office.

— Ariel Palmieri for Thomas Arts Festival.


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