VENTURA, Calif. — Monster fires in Southern California raged for a seventh day on Sunday, edging into Santa Barbara County while leaving residents of neighboring Ventura County to deal with the aftermath of a historic inferno.
As hundreds fled for safety in Santa Barbara County as the fires spread north, residents in Ventura County sifted through the rubble of what was once their homes. Thousands of other evacuees remained unable to return to their homes, leaving them to wonder when they can move back in.
Despite the widespread loss and uncertainty, residents and officials expressed relief and solidarity Sunday, with many saying the devastating fires have helped underscore what is most important in life.
“Everyone has been — to even say ‘amazing,’ that doesn’t even — the words cannot even come to mind about what to say about the gratitude that we have,” said Tracee Bird, who lost her home. “This is the feeling that’s all over Ventura right now, is this whole thing of people coming together.”
The Ventura Police Department on Sunday shuttled people to their homes and allowed them just 45 minutes to retrieve belongings before taking them back to the starting point in the parking lot of Temple Beth Torah in Ventura. Some complained that it has been difficult to get information about the status of their homes and how long they’ll be in temporary housing.
“Everything is hearsay because one person will tell you one thing, and another will tell you another,” said Rita Horn, while riding with a vanload of people after filling some bags with clothing. “I just don’t know what to believe.”
As of Sunday afternoon, Cal Fire couldn’t estimate when people might be able to start moving back.
“As long as the areas are a continued threat, we are going to leave those evacuation orders in place, for safety of life,” said Charles Esseling, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. “We understand people are antsy and want to get back in there, but we don’t want any issues or injuries.”
The Thomas Fire, in a coastal region northwest of Los Angeles, remained the largest active wildfire in the state, having burned through nearly 170,000 acres and taking with it more than 500 buildings and at least one life.
Farther north, residents of Santa Barbara County were facing the wrath of the advancing fire. About 85,000 households were without power, and authorities were ordering people in the beach communities of Carpinteria and Montecito to evacuate.
Over the weekend, National Weather Service meteorologist Rich Thompson warned Ventura residents at a town hall meeting that conditions are still combustible. Though the winds that have been stoking the fire are expected to ease up some during the week, he said, the air will remain warm and dry. He said next weekend could see another Santa Ana wind event, which could lead to the same dangerous conditions Southern California experienced last week.
“All the way through next week, there is going to be potential for elevated, even critical, fire conditions to continue across Ventura County,” he said.
In the Hidden Valley neighborhood, a hilly enclave in southeastern Ventura County, mask-wearing residents could be seen clutching bags of belongings during their 45-minute window to grab and go.
When Bill and Jan Coultas arrived at their home on Viewcrest Drive, they found an injured baby coyote in their front yard, singed from the flames.
“I tried to call animal control, but I never did get through to them,” said Bill Coultas, 71. “It just moved. It’s gone someplace else.”
Another neighbor, 27-year-old Kristal Santos, recently moved in with her cousin, Roxie Allen, after having been displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
“I’m like, really?” she said. “I have a friend who told me, ‘Don’t come here, you’ll bring an earthquake.’ ”
Bird’s home caught fire live on television. She and her husband, Scott, didn’t see it; they were on the freeway, trying to get out of town. But a friend called, and they raced back to see their burning house.
They pleaded with emergency workers to let them get close as the flames swallowed their home. Firefighters reluctantly allowed Tracee Bird to capture the awful moment on video.
While watching her home burn down, a television news crew interviewed her. She lamented on camera that she hadn’t had time to salvage her Oakland Raiders jersey that bore No. 52 for her favorite player, Khalil Mack.
“That evening, I got a phone call from Khalil Mack, No. 52,” she said. “We chatted for 10 minutes; it totally put a smile on our faces.”
For a time, the Birds stayed at a hotel in Oxnard, south of Ventura. It so happened that Villanova Preparatory School, a Catholic boarding school in Ojai, had also been evacuated to the hotel. The Birds, the students and staff ate KFC together. When the headmaster learned the Birds hadn’t had time to pack a change of clothes, she removed her Villanova jacket on the spot and handed it to Tracee Bird, then went to her room and returned with more clothes.
“The love is just coming and coming and coming,” said Bird, 48. “It shows the most amazing side of the human spirit that we have.”
In Santa Paula, close to the origins of the Thomas Fire, author Laurel Braitman’s family was coming to terms with the fact that their 50-acre ranch had burned down and that the house Braitman’s parents built in 1979 was gone — except for the fireplace, the fireplace tools and, almost as a taunt, an untouched stack of firewood.
Braitman lives in the Bay Area and drove down after a friend called about the fire in Aliso Canyon in Santa Paula. She got there by 8 a.m. Tuesday, tuning into the scanner to track the path of the flames.
“It was wind like I’ve never seen before in my life,” she said. “It was moving through the canyons sequentially, and you could hear them calling everyone to the hills of Ventura. In the past, we’ve lived through fires two times, and we were never in danger of losing the house.”
Her mother and stepfather, both 70, grabbed garden hoses to fight the flames, unsuccessfully. They did manage to save her brother’s house.
In the city of Santa Barbara, residents continued to deal with heavy smoke and prepared for what might lie ahead.
“They say there’s asbestos and God knows what else in the ashes that are coming down,” said Muriel Ridland, 87.
Ridland was one of dozens of local residents who came in the early afternoon to get free masks distributed jointly through Direct Relief and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department at the Santa Barbara Public Library. Molly Watta, 33, a senior librarian at the library, estimated they would distribute all 6,000 masks on Sunday.
"Santa Barbara is amazing," Ridland said. "Little kids, teenagers, everybody is wearing the masks."
Many must now decide if it's finally time to leave their homes.
"We've been indoors since this started. We can't do much," said Jose Ramirez, 37, who has been staying home all week with his wife and children, ages 9 and 16. "My in-laws live in Oxnard. If they get the days off school, we might go to Oxnard. It's raining ashes here."
Ufberg reported from Santa Barbara, Calif., and Youn reported from Los Angeles. Mark Berman in Washington contributed to this report.