VENTURA, Calif. — They had run for their lives by the thousands when the devastating wildfires raced across a huge swath of brush-covered Southern California hillsides, and they had survived.
But hundreds had to flee so quickly they left literally everything behind.
On Wednesday, heartbroken people began to take stock of everything they lost in a manner of minutes, from their beloved four-legged companions who got separated from them during the chaos to a lifetime of memories encapsulated in photos, jewelry and other keepsakes.
“Everything burned,” Marolyn Romero-Sim said as she sat on a cot weeping at an evacuation center at the sprawling Ventura County Fairgrounds. “Everything is ashes. Everything. We don’t have a place to live. We lost stuff we can’t get back. Baby pictures. They were on a hard drive.”
She said her husband, Hugo Romero-Rodriguez, was racked with guilt that he couldn’t get inside the modest RV his family called home to rescue anything — including their beloved little dog, Coqueta. She was trapped in a crate inside when the vehicle erupted in flames. Romero-Rodriguez suffered cuts on his leg and hand and a burn on his arm trying to get to inside to save Coqueta.
“He was sitting there in the driver’s seat and he couldn’t move,” Romero-Sim said, recalling how she, her husband and their 9-year-old daughter, Milagros, sat in their truck, watching the RV burn before finally realizing they had to flee.
“He just kept watching and he feels so guilty that he couldn’t save it,” she continued. “I told him he did everything he could and he did what he had to save our lives.”
Lisa Kermode and her family were immersed in similar anguish after returning to their home in the hills above Ventura on Tuesday to discover it had burned to the ground. They had barely escaped the flames the night before, leaving so quickly that Kermode’s children had no time to change out of their pajamas.
“I was telling the boys, at the time the decision we made was to get out of here as fast as possible to keep ourselves safe,” Kermode said. “Now that we’re back here, maybe we’re thinking about some of the stuff we’ve lost. … It really changes your perspective.”
For Romer-Sim and her family the loss was particularly devastating. They lived in the RV they parked near Ventura’s water purification plant in the hills just north of downtown. They couldn’t move it because the starter had died and her husband had planned to replace it that day.
Romero-Rodriguez makes a modest living as a jewelry salesman and he lost the pearls, earrings, bracelets and watches that made up his inventory.
But losing the 1-year-old snow-white teacup poodle the family called Coqueta (Spanish for flirt) was particularly painful.
“We spoiled her. She had a slipper as a bed. It was a big pink slipper and it said ‘Princess’ and it had a crown in gold. And inside it was fuzzy. We would buy little baby clothes for her,” Romer-Sim said while her husband visited with a counselor.
Four major fires stretching from the edge of Los Angeles to the beachfront city of Ventura 60 miles (97 kilometers) north have prompted the evacuation of about 200,000 people and destroyed more than 150 homes.
The flames also prompted the evacuation of literally thousands of pets, not only dogs and cats but horses, goats, alpacas and other large livestock.
The edges of both Los Angeles and Ventura are dotted with horse-keeping properties, and when flames roared in people barely had time to get their animals to their own evacuation centers.
“We’re full, we’ve taken in over 450 horses and four goats,” Heidi Allyn, a stable assistant at the sprawling Los Angeles Equestrian Center, said Wednesday.
Some people fled so quickly that they led their frightened horses down smoke-filled, traffic-choked streets. Allyn said a few horses suffered burns and were taken to a veterinary facility at the Ventura County Fairgrounds for treatment.
Nearly 30 horses didn’t make it out of a ranch in Los Angeles’ semi-rural Sunland-Tujunga area and died there.
Firefighters will do what they can to help any animals separated from their owners, said Chris Harvey, a spokesman for the crews fighting the Ventura blaze.
They’ll leave food out for dogs and cats that flee the flames on their own, hoping they’ll return later looking for their owners. They also help large animals like horses when they can.
“Sometimes they’re able to feed livestock or try and call in to get them evacuated if they can do so without having to suspend their firefighting operations,” he said.