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 neighborhoods, leaving them to wonder what became of them.
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.
Further 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.
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.
Tracee 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 to capture the awful moment on video.
While watching her home burn down, a television news crew interviewed her. She lamented 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."