It started at 12:30am. I woke to the sound of pounding, far louder than any sound my two-year-old would make in the middle of the night. I jumped from bed and as I lumbered to the front door the knocks got louder. I picked up my pace to stop the knocking and hopefully keep my little girl from waking from the sound. Little did I know at that point, my kid waking up in the middle of the night would have been the least of my concerns.
It was my neighbor Rob at the door. He lives directly across the street. He asked if I had heard about the fires, and suggested I might pack up the valuables in case we had to run.
I tossed on my robe and walked to the middle of the street. That’s when I found out what we were up against.
You could see the flames jumping off the hillside just over a block from my home. I was looking at the Thomas Fire. Just before bed, we saw a news alert that a fire had started in nearby Santa Paula, about 10 miles from home, but we didn’t expect it to impact us.
With only two hours of sleep, I started monitoring the news and walking in and out to see if the fire was moving closer to our home. News was scarce in the middle of the night, and I was relying on VC Scanner and other Twitter accounts for updates. At 1:00am, my wife and I packed up the laptops, hard drives, some family photos, files, passports, and other valuables in our cars.
I stood out on the corner with my neighbors in shock at what we were seeing. One of my neighbors said, “we have to come to terms with the reality that our houses might not make it.” Helicopters kept passing overhead. You could hear constant sirens. But the smoke was blowing away from us, so while we saw jumping flames, we felt a small level of safety as long as the winds didn’t shift.
My daughter woke up from the sounds, and we got her back to sleep in our bed. At about 3:00am, my wife, 39 weeks pregnant, got back to sleep while I watched the news and conditions. This is the last video I took before we had to evacuate:
At 4:30am, my neighbor’s son knocked on the door and told us that a voluntary evacuation was in for our neighborhood. After debating if we should go for the last hour, we decided it was time. I put my daughter in my wife’s car as she grabbed the dogs. I sent her away and ran back in for one last check. I grabbed my old Boy Scout uniform and our Jewish marriage contract, our Ketubah, from the wall and put them in the car and went off after her toward my in-laws in Carpinteria, about 25 minutes away.
As I drove away, it was surreal. It felt like a movie. I looked up at the flames on the nearby ridge line. Smoke filled the air. I counted at least three police cars driving around my small part of the neighborhood with lights flashing, alternating sirens and telling us that a mandatory evacuation is in place. I drove away from the war zone wondering what it would look like when I returned.
We got to my in-laws, spent a couple of hours talking about everything going on as my daughter played, she didn’t get what was going on, then we went to Jack’s Bistro & Famous Bagels for breakfast and a taste of normalcy. Of course, it wasn’t normal. The power went out three times while we were there.
I kept up with the news in our neighborhood most of the day with Nextdoor, where many of my neighbors were sharing updates on specific streets and neighborhoods. That’s when I found out there was a fire on my street. A friend who was also evacuated sent me a photo he took of the TV showing houses burning less than a block away. That’s when it really hit home that my house might not make it.
We spent the afternoon at my in-laws monitoring the fire on the news and social media. I did some work on my laptop. At about 8:00pm, we started getting ready for an early bed time. We brushed our teeth, got in bed, and put on the movie Waterboy on Netflix on my laptop to distract us from the news, expecting to turn it off early and go to bed. After all, we were running on less than 3 hours of sleep.
That’s when my wife went into labor.
We called the doctor, and he advised us to go to our scheduled hospital back in Ventura rather than go north to a closer hospital in Santa Barbara. The drive down was unlike anything I have ever experienced. There were flames on both sides of the highway at one point as I sped down the 101. My wife captured a video as I as driving.
When we got to the hospital, we stepped out of the car and lost our re-circulated air. The smell of a campfire hit us instantly. The thick smoke was in the parking garage and even inside the emergency room triage and check-in area. We put on masks to protect our lungs from the smoke and slowly made our way to a less smoky delivery ward on the second floor.
I stopped paying attention to the fire at that point, as my focus needed to be on my baby. My daughter and dogs were safe with the in-laws, my parents had a flight scheduled from Denver to LAX in the morning to come join us. But that fire was still in the back of my mind.
At 6:36am on December 6th, my wife made her last push and our beautiful baby girl emerged into the world. Little Mila, our fire baby, was just perfect. But the first thing she ever smelled in her life was smoke.
After some kisses and hugs, I eventually looked back at my phone for more updates. Family and friends were checking on us. We missed calls and texts from our local Rabbis and community members. We were safely at the hospital, but as far as they knew we were just evacuated. They didn’t know about the baby.
At the hospital, building engineers came through and put duct tape on all of the windows. It helped, but there is still a small smell of smoke. When the wind shifts toward the building, the smoke thickens and you can see it in the hallways. Outside, a light snow of ash fell as I walked next door to Ventura Spaghetti Factory, one of the only restaurants open in town due to a boil order from the city. The water treatment facility went offline shortly during the power outages, and with a focus on the fire the boil warning has yet to be lifted.
My parents landed at LAX just after the 405 highway closed, their route to Ventura from Los Angeles. As the Getty Museum that I visited on Thanksgiving weekend with my parents was threatened with a new blaze. They had to find another route to us, but still were able to meet their new granddaughter before she was 12 hours old.
It’s funny in some ways. Our first daughter, who is still with my in-laws in Carpinteria, was born during a flood in Portland on Halloween in 2015. One baby came during a water disaster. The second came during the fires.
On Wednesday afternoon, I was able to visit the house and pick up a few things for daughter #1. I found our yard in shambles from wind damage and ash, but otherwise no damage. My next-door neighbor’s fence partially burned, and they lost their recycling bin. Again, very lucky for both of us. But two houses up from them, it was not so lucky. The next three homes in a row burned to the ground, as did two across the street from them. I counted six homes burned as I toured the damage before returning to my family at the hospital.
On Wednesday evening, our families made their way up to Carpinteria for the night. In-laws at home, my parents in a hotel as all Ventura hotels are booked with evacuees. At 2:30am, when the nurse was in checking on my wife and daughter, we saw the news that parts of Carpinteria were evacuated. US 101 was closed from Ventura to Carpinteria. My car with half of my most important belongings is in my in-law’s driveway, right in the path of what we were seeing reported.
I talked to my parents then, and told them to be ready to go get my car and drive to Santa Barbara away from the fire. We got back to bed at 3:00am, and luckily the winds didn’t put my in-laws in jeopardy. At 7:41am, I got a text from the county that 101 is back open, giving us a route out of town to hunker down at the in-laws. Our house is still under mandatory evacuation.
I’m writing this on Thursday morning in the hospital room as we prepare to hopefully pack up and go back to Carpinteria to stay with family until we can go home.
This has been the craziest 72 hours of my life, and I’ve had some wild experiences. Nothing will ever compare to evacuating my home in an inferno, driving through flames with a wife in labor, and navigating the challenges of a severely impacted city and region. In a small city of 130,000, the other side of town isn’t far away. Everyone has a friend impacted by the fire, if not themselves. Everyone has a connection to someone who lost a home, one of over 150 currently reported to be destroyed by the Thomas Fire. And that doesn’t include the fires in Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, and other areas nearby. And that doesn’t include neighboring towns like Ojai, Santa Paula, La Conchita, and other areas at risk.
We still have huge winds. We are still under mandatory evacuation. We don’t know when this will end. But we are safe and together. Our home is still standing right now, as far as I know, and we will stick together and persevere. Our little fire baby will always have a story, and one we will never forget.
As I wrote on Facebook, I’m not always a fan of “thoughts and prayers,” as we needed the National Guard and firefighters more than Washington rhetoric. But when there was a blaze on my street, thoughts and prayers were all I could get. Keep sending them our way. Southern California is not out of this mess yet, and it will take time to recover and rebuild.
But today, I have to go back to focusing on my family. My day-old daughter, 2-year-old, and wife need me. Hoping for the best in the coming days. That’s all we have and can rely on right now. Hope.