Although Laura Carrasco and her husband were at home in Oxnard on Monday, December 4, they didn’t smell the smoke because of the 60-mile-an-hour winds. Around 10:30 pm, they looked outside, saw flames, and a few minutes later, firefighters went up the street with bullhorns, telling people to evacuate.
It was the beginning of the Thomas fire, the largest recorded fire in California history, which burned 273,400 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, destroying about 1,000 structures.
“I grabbed medicine and a packet of important papers and that was it. My husband was so sure we’d be back that we didn’t take any extra clothes. We didn’t take anything.” — Laura Carrasco
“The power was out, so we had to evacuate in the dark and find the black cat who was hiding and the carrier in the dark garage,” said Carrasco, a paraeducator at Dwire School, an elementary school for students with disabilities. “By 11 we were out. I grabbed medicine and a packet of important papers and that was it. My husband was so sure we’d be back that we didn’t take any extra clothes. We didn’t take anything.”
Well, just one more thing. Carrasco’s husband’s children and grandchildren were about to come over to celebrate the holidays. She had their gifts ready, and she also had out a photo album with pictures of her grandparents who came from Russia and Romania, and her parents and brother, who have all passed away. On impulse, Carrasco grabbed the album — the only record she now has of her family. Everything else was destroyed.
Santa Paula High School Athletic Director Danny Guzman evacuated his Ventura apartment Monday night, also convinced he’d be back soon.
He was taking a class to get an administrative credential when a friend texted to let him know what was going on. When he got home, the winds were blowing, and he tried to pad the windows to keep the ash out. He and his girlfriend decided to evacuate because the air quality was so bad. They grabbed their cat and packed overnight bags in the dark, expecting to go to work the next day, then drove to his father’s in Ventura.
Guzman, a member of the Santa Paula Federation of Teachers, found out the next day his apartment building had burned down. Since he had nothing but a change of clothes, he was grateful when his union president reached out to him with a gift card.
“I was kind of in shock,” Guzman said. “It helped me get some necessities. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I need a comb, I need a toothbrush.’”
Carrasco also appreciated how quickly the union got in touch. Along with the card from the CFT, her local, the Ventura County Federation of Paraeducators, gave her a check. The apartment she and her husband are now in is across the street from Target, and she says she’s spent a lot of time there with her gift card.
The gift cards meant a lot to Richard Palmer, an adult education teacher with the Oxnard Federation of Teachers and School Employees. After losing their home in Ventura, he and his wife moved to a rental in Santa Barbara, about an hour commute from his work. When January’s heavy rains caused mudslides that closed the freeway, Palmer was no longer able to get to work.
“For the two weeks 101 was shut, I could have taken a train that drops me off miles away, or taken a boat and I would have spent more than I would have made for working, and it would take four-and-a-half hours one way to get to work,” he said. “The union arranged that those who couldn’t get to work would be compensated.”
Palmer appreciated his union’s help — as well as his co-workers’ kindness — at such a stressful time. Along with his full-time job teaching workplace readiness, he has been meeting with a myriad of people to deal with the aftermath of the fire, including architects, contractors, lawyers, insurance agents, and surveyors.
Palmer and Carrasco are rebuilding their homes. But Guzman and his girlfriend, now staying with his girlfriend’s father in Fillmore, are looking for another place to live. That could take a while.
“The housing market in California is ridiculous,” Guzman said. “There’s very little out there and when you add the fires, there are 1,000 more people looking.”
“I was really shaken and my students had written beautiful letters and cards. It was a catharsis for me. I decided to just work so hard and give my all to the students — that was my way of feeling better.” — Mudje Piddock
Channel Islands High School English teacher Mudje Piddock lost her home in Santa Paula and, in a particularly harsh blow, doesn’t have fire insurance. Piddock, a member of the Oxnard Federation, says her students’ thoughtfulness gave her hope.
“I was really shaken and my students had written beautiful letters and cards,” she said. “I decided to just give my all to the students — that was my way of feeling better.”
The kindness of students, colleagues and the union, which got in touch quickly with a check to help out, touched Piddock after the experience of fleeing her home.
“It was around 11, and our four-year-old twins were sleeping,” she said “It was like an apocalyptic movie — dark everywhere and there was all this traffic.”
After all the upheaval, Piddock is grateful to be staying at her in-law’s beach house.
“You don’t ever expect something big like that to happen,” she said. “Thank goodness everybody’s safe. That’s a blessing.”
—By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter