Home­town un­der fire, twice Flames be­siege bu­colic city fol­low­ing mass shoot­ing


A vigil Thurs­day night for the vic­tims of the mass shoot­ing in Thou­sand Oaks was so packed that ush­ers barred peo­ple from en­ter­ing the au­di­to­rium.

Those left out­side pressed their faces against the glass doors, try­ing to watch the ser­vice on the TV in the over­flow room. As the winds picked up, they zipped up their jack­ets and hugged their arms to their chests, but didn’t leave — a show of sol­i­dar­ity with a city touched by tragedy.

Nearby, a group of mourn­ers linked hands and sang “Amaz­ing Grace” un­der oak trees strung with lights. In­side the au­di­to­rium, peo­ple gripped bat­tery-pow­ered can­dles and wiped away tears as they talked about the 12 peo­ple who had been killed the night be­fore at Border­line Bar and Grill.

It was the kind of quiet mo­ment we have come to ex­pect af­ter some­thing hor­ri­ble hap­pens, a respite af­ter the worst is over. But in

Thou­sand Oaks, an­other dis­as­ter loomed.

Dur­ing the vigil, many peo­ple’s phones’ pinged with emer­gency alerts about a fast-mov­ing fire, fu­eled by the same winds that had whipped their faces as they headed from their cars to the ser­vice. It took ef­fort to walk up­right in those howl­ing winds.

Over the next sev­eral hours, the fires would be­come un­stop­pable, de­stroy­ing many homes and forc­ing the evac­u­a­tion of hun­dreds more, in­clud­ing my fam­ily’s.

First, the city where I grew up was cat­a­pulted onto the na­tional news by a gun­man’s ram­page — join­ing the list of places na­tion­wide jolted by mass vi­o­lence. And then, the fires.

Twin dis­as­ters in lit­tle over 24 hours.

Kyle Jor­rey, ed­i­tor of the lo­cal news­pa­per the Thou­sand Oaks Acorn, de­ployed his small staff re­peat­edly into the wee hours of the morn­ing this week — lo­cal elec­tions Tues­day night, the shoot­ing Wed­nes­day night and the fires Thurs­day night. “There’s never been any­thing like this,” he said.

When re­porters de­scended on Thou­sand Oaks the morn­ing af­ter the shoot­ing, I was among them, camp­ing out in a cof­fee shop. Two women next to me were talk­ing about the shoot­ing in dis­be­lief.

Fiorella Quiroz, 21, and Jes­sica Romero, 22, both got word min­utes af­ter it hap­pened that night — one was alerted by am­bu­lances blar­ing past her home — and they hadn’t slept much since. Nei­ther knew any­one who died, but had heard that friends of friends had been lost. A class­mate’s cousin. A best friend’s brother’s friend.

Usu­ally they have to ex­plain to peo­ple where Thou­sand Oaks is. But on Thurs­day, celebri­ties were talk­ing about the mas­sacre. Sur­vivors of the Park­land shoot­ing in Florida sent con­do­lences to Thou­sand Oaks. Pres­i­dent Trump tweeted about the shoot­ing.

“I guess ev­ery­one knows what Thou­sand Oaks is now,” Romero said.

For the unini­ti­ated, Thou­sand Oaks is off the 101 Free­way be­tween Agoura Hills and Ca­mar­illo. It’s a com­mu­nity of 120,000 peo­ple that feels small; if you don’t know some­one per­son­ally, your kids prob­a­bly went to school to­gether, or you have friends in com­mon. The se­cret pass­code for ac­cep­tance here is call­ing the city T.O. — only out­siders say the full name.

And the name it­self is a nod to how bu­colic it can feel; there are hun­dreds of grand oak trees that dot the scrubby hills and wind­ing streets, and it’s usu­ally 10 de­grees cooler than in the nearby San Fer­nando Val­ley. Thou­sand Oaks con­sis­tently ranks as one of the safest ci­ties in Amer­ica. It’s the kind of place peo­ple, in­clud­ing my par­ents, go to raise their kids.

On Thurs­day we had ex­pe­ri­enced what is un­doubt­edly the most ter­ri­ble way to be­come a house­hold name. And then Romero pointed out smoke be­hind us, vis­i­ble through the cof­fee shop win­dow.

It ap­peared a fire was break­ing out, and we chuck­led about the un­for­tu­nate tim­ing. But it didn’t in­spire fear; South­ern Cal­i­for­nia has al­ways been fire coun­try.

My par­ents live in the same house in Thou­sand Oaks that we moved into when I was 7. It’s nes­tled in a sub­ur­ban tract but is sur­rounded by moun­tains and open space, a dan­ger dur­ing Santa Ana winds sea­son. I re­mem­ber stand­ing on a free­way over­pass down the street and watch­ing the 2005 wild­fires rage nearby, awed by the or­ange glow.

Thou­sand Oaks of­ten felt un­com­fort­ably one with the wilder­ness; my high school brought in goats to eat over­grown shrub­bery, and once went on lock­down be­cause there was a bear nearby.

So it was easy to put the smoke to the back of my mind as I left the cof­fee shop and drove to the memo­rial, where it was im­pos­si­ble to think of any­thing else but the tragedy.

There, Joseph Kaes­berg, 19, clutched a poster he’d made with pic­tures and mem­o­ries of his friend Kristina Morisette. Morisette, 20, worked at Border­line and was killed in the shoot­ing.

Kaes­berg, whose eyes looked puffy from a day of ter­ri­ble news, re­mem­bered her as a won­der­ful friend and an ex­cel­lent cook. Their friend group hosted a Thanks­giv­ing potluck ev­ery year, and her dishes were al­ways stand­outs. His fa­vorite were the home­made jalapeno pop­pers.

“We won’t get to do that this year,” he said.

Later that night, I was at my fam­ily’s house pre­par­ing to go to sleep when we got a vol­un­tary evac­u­a­tion or­der. Skit­tish from re­port­ing on other fast-mov­ing fires, I urged my par­ents to get up and start pack­ing. Ten min­utes later, we got a manda­tory evac­u­a­tion or­der.

From the drive­way, flames were vis­i­ble on a nearby ridge line, and they were grow­ing. The sky was or­ange and pink and red around spots of crack­ling fire.

We be­gan to worry about road clo­sures, but we knew al­ter­nate routes if it came to that. The streets here are for­ever mapped onto my brain, etched by the city where I learned to drive.

We drove to my apart­ment in Los Feliz with our dog. It was a mostly sleep­less night.

On Fri­day morn­ing, we learned that our house was fine. I watched a TV seg­ment in which an an­chor said the flames had been headed straight to our neigh­bor­hood, but then the winds sud­denly changed di­rec­tion.

We were lucky. Many houses burned. The fire con­tin­ues to rage and shift, and no one knows what will hap­pen next.

Thou­sand Oaks Mayor An­drew Fox said Fri­day that nearly 75% of the city had been evac­u­ated, a fright­en­ing sit­u­a­tion that com­pounded the pre­vi­ous tragedy, yet il­lu­mi­nated a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence.

“The vic­tims and fam­i­lies of the shoot­ing, that was a per­ma­nent cri­sis — those lives will never be re­cov­ered,” Fox said. “Tonight we’re talk­ing about a se­ri­ous fire sit­u­a­tion, but thank­fully we’ve not lost a sin­gle life, and as dif­fi­cult as it may be, homes can be re­built; prop­erty can be reac­quired.”

Friends posted on Face­book about how aw­ful it was to see Border­line, a bar where some­one from Thou­sand Oaks may have had their first kiss or their high school re­union, turn into a place vis­ited by such dark­ness. Or to see hun­dreds of peo­ple lined up at a lo­cal high school to do­nate blood.

The teen cen­ter, where I played youth bas­ket­ball and par­tic­i­pated in de­bate com­pe­ti­tions, was turned into a place where the for­tu­nate par­ents would be re­united with their chil­dren.

But in less than 24 hours, it had changed again — into an evac­u­a­tion cen­ter for peo­ple flee­ing the fires.

Jar­ring scenes for a place bless­edly un­ac­cus­tomed to them, un­til this week.

Stu­art W. Pal­ley For The Times

IN THOU­SAND OAKS, many had to f lee their homes overnight on short no­tice.

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

MOURN­ERS com­fort each other at Thurs­day’s can­dle­light vigil for the 12 vic­tims of the Thou­sand Oaks bar shoot­ing. Winds were al­ready feed­ing the f lames that would force most res­i­dents to evac­u­ate later that night.

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