VENTURA, Calif. — Trucks ferrying exhausted firefighters rolled into the fairgrounds here straight from the front lines of the Thomas Fire, which was burning right to the edge of Ventura. Ash was slowly dropping like snow, and a campfirelike smell was thick in the air alongside visible smoke.
Just across the street from the epicenter of the firefighting and evacuation efforts of this massive wildfire, surfers navigated the waves of one of the top breaks in California, C Street. For those in the water, the ocean is a sanctuary — usually from everyday life, but this week, also from the fire.
Daniel Ohlinger, 20, had the break to himself during a midafternoon session Friday, cruising on a 9-foot-8 orange longboard and playfully making the most of the knee-high waves. Days earlier, he had been battling the fire, trying to save his family's house about 10 miles away.
"They told us to evacuate, but there just weren't enough firefighters," he said.
Ohlinger, who works the night shift on a ship at Naval Base Ventura County, woke up a colleague to take over his watch and jetted home when he learned his house might be threatened. He took up a hose with his father, who had been watering the house and yard for hours.
"We just did everything we could. We just drenched everything," he said.
The flames came right up to his home, but he and his family held their ground. And they won. The fire seared the entire hillside behind the house, but it stopped there. On the other side of the hill, he said, homeowners were not as lucky: "All I saw was a chimney. The entire house was burned."
After Ohlinger fought the fire — following three consecutive weeks of working 12-hour shifts — he headed right to the surf.
"This was my first day off, so I wanted to make sure I got out," he said. "It's good for the soul. I've thought about it a lot but can't really put it into words."
Ventura is a heralded surf town, but for local surfers, C Street is more than just a premier surf break.
"It's like a place of peace out there, and then also the surf community is really important, and there's kind of a bond between people who surf at a certain spot," said Sarah Raskin, 39, who lives in nearby Ojai and is a schoolteacher in Oxnard, which has canceled classes. "It's really a place to go and get support and check in with people. Everyone's kind of shellshocked from this whole thing."
Firefighters congregated on the rocks overlooking the break, relaxing, joking and having fun in between duties on the fire line. The ocean had become an escape for them, too.
Later in the afternoon, as the sun was beginning to set, the shroud of smoke leaving only an orange tint, Deena Pace walked up the beach with a longboard, her husband and daughter at her side.
"Surfing is probably the thing that brings us most together," she said. "It brings out the best in all of us. Some people cook together, some people bike together; this is the thing that brings us together the most."
Pace said her family almost lost its house to the fire earlier in the week and had been cooped up inside since.
"Yeah, it's really smoggy out here, but surfing brings us joy, and we need some joy right now," she said. "Every single time I get in the water, I feel like I have a full-on adventure and exhilaration and that the elements have washed over me, and it brings me 100 percent pure joy."
Earlier in the week, Henry Rose, 12, paddled out with his friend Jack Gordon, 13. For both boys, the fire had been a tough experience, one they hoped to wash off.
"I've been surfing my whole life, and it's always made me happy," Henry said. "With all the terror that's been going on around Ventura, it makes me really sad because all my friends' houses have burned down and I feel really bad for them. . . . I just always like to go surfing when I get really sad."
Bradley McClure, 22, said that even with all the community, family and friendship elements of surfing, ultimately, it's a solitary sport.
"It's personal, to get away and be in the water and enjoy something nice, something where you can forget about life," said McClure, who was rushing to catch last-minute waves while there was still light.
As night fell, the sea spray mixed with smoke as surfers bobbed in the water. The fire continued to burn over the mountains in the background. The waves started to improve slightly.
"If it's good, I think people are just going to go out," Ohlinger said. "It doesn't matter if there's a fire."