Three weeks ago, Nicole Murray had been thinking about presents.
It was just after Black Friday, and she was hoping to come up with some great gift ideas for the people she loved. “I wanted to go above and beyond,” she recalls.
Then on Dec. 4, the Thomas fire struck. Ms. Murray found herself rushing out of the Ventura, Calif., home she shared with her boyfriend and his family with nothing but her two dogs and a haphazardly packed suitcase. Later they learned the fire had burned down their house – along with most of the neighborhood.
In some ways, Murray counts herself lucky: she and her family managed to secure a rental in nearby Oxnard after spending only a few nights at a hotel. But the stress, shock, and loss have taken their toll. Now all she wants for Christmas is some quiet time with loved ones to process everything she’s been through.
“We’re just all exhausted,” she says. “We just want to spend time together.”
In just over two weeks the Thomas fire – now the second largest in state history – has ripped through more than 270,000 acres, destroying more than 1,000 structures and damaging more than 200 others, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. About 8,000 firefighters remain on the front lines.
As of Tuesday the fire was about 55 percent contained and evacuation orders have been lifted for parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, though thousands of residents still either can’t go home or have none to return to. Los Angeles and San Diego counties are also still reeling from the scorching they’ve received.
Despite all that, the fires have done what tragedies often do: bring people together. Volunteers have mobilized across Southern California, collecting donations and distributing food, water, and supplies. Some have teamed up with the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Others have taken it upon themselves to help friends and neighbors. The effect is an almost regional display of holiday spirit in the face of the state’s worst fire season on record.
Even Murray, worn out from weeks of anxiety, can’t say enough about the kindness she’s received from colleagues, friends, and complete strangers.
“I struck up a conversation with a person in line [at the pet store] and she just hugged me and said, ‘I’m so sorry for what you’re going through,’ ” Murray says. “There’s been unbelievable emotional support.”
Fresh meals from a survivor
At the San Buenaventura Mission in downtown Ventura, local chef Tim Kilcoyne is helping oversee the production of thousands of fresh meals to be sent out to shelters and first responders. Like Murray, Mr. Kilcoyne had to evacuate with his wife and six-month-old son the night the Thomas fire broke out. His house survived, but his family decided to stay in Oxnard to keep the baby away from the smoke.
Meanwhile, Kilcoyne decided he wanted to do something to help. A friend connected him to renowned chef José Andrés, whose nonprofit World Central Kitchen has partnered with Los Angeles-based L.A. Kitchen to provide free, healthy meals to firefighters and fire victims in Ventura, Oxnard, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles. Now Kilcoyne is part of a group of about 10 volunteer chefs at the makeshift cookery at San Buenaventura, guiding a daily influx of volunteers as they bag fruit, chop vegetables, and put together sandwiches.
“This is our ninth day doing this, and I’ve been here every day from about 6 a.m. to anywhere between 9 and 11 at night,” Kilcoyne says. And though he plans to take Christmas Day off – it’s his son’s first, and he doesn’t want to miss it – “we’re going to do this as long as we can, as long as the need’s there,” he says.
Buying water and raising money
Other locals are working at a smaller – though no less meaningful – scale. A day after the evacuation orders were lifted, Rhandi LaChonce was back in her Ventura neighborhood, handing out water and face masks that she spent $400 of her own money to buy.
Later she paired up with an author friend to raise funds for individuals and families who hadn’t been able to find help via nonprofits, the government, or crowdsourcing sites. “We found all of the Thomas fire Facebook pages and were like, ‘Whoever has no GoFundMe, no insurance or immediate support, contact me,’ ” says Ms. LaChonce, a bartender and student.
Since then they’ve collected about $13,000 and distributed nearly $9,000, paying for people’s meals, cell phone bills, and other immediate needs. And LaChonce says she’s been struck by the generosity of spirit she’s seen and experienced through it all.
“There’s been a few families that have some severe despair. How could you not?” she says. “But the people I’m working with, their spirits are so high. They lost everything, and a lot of them are still giving time to other families who lost stuff.
“It makes my heart feel bigger,” she adds.
Somber, but appreciative
Still, holiday cheer won’t come easily. Firefighters are expected to work through the first week of January, and Cal Fire top brass are planning a site visit to Ventura and Santa Barbara on Christmas Day.
“They’re taking it well, and we have been able to rotate out some of the crews that have been there since the beginning to get some relief,” says agency spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff of the fire crews. “But we can’t take the day off.”
Sabryna Aylard, whose family had to evacuate from their home in the Ventura hills, views the holidays with a mixture of feelings: relief that her family is safe; gratitude for the firefighters who helped save their home; guilt that their house survived when so many of their neighbors’ didn’t; frustration that they might be stuck spending Christmas at a hotel room while they wait for the air quality in their neighborhood to improve.
“It’s a rollercoaster of emotions that we’re all going through,” she says. “We’re trying to stay positive.”
Murray says she feels the same. But she also marvels at the strength and giving spirit of the community surrounding her. Her first day back at work, she says, she learned her colleagues had set up a rotation to make sure she could take home-cooked meals back to her family every night, “so we could have dinner and not have to worry about it.”
“They’ve been completely understanding of everything,” Murray adds. “If it wasn’t for the support I’m seeing from friends and coworkers, I’d be a complete wreck.”