California sheriff’s Commander Dave Murray, usually the guy who helps others evacuate when wildfires rage through their communities, this week surveyed the charred ruins of his own home in a neighbourhood north of Los Angeles.
A 25-foot brick chimney and a pile of ash was all that remained after a blaze chewed through the hills above the ocean in the seaside city of Ventura. A melted Santa Claus figure sagged in front of a neighbour’s home.
“You never believe that it’s going to be your house, your stuff, you treasures that are going to be turned to rubble,” Murray said on Friday, visibly shaken. “It’s sobering.”
The six major wildfires that erupted throughout Southern California in the past week have killed at least one person, destroyed hundreds of buildings, forced more than 200,000 people to flee and choked the air across much of the region.
Forecasters predict wind gusts to become more intense by Saturday night, challenging the 8,700 firefighters who have been battling the fast-moving blazes all week.
Murray, 53, rushed his wife and three children to a friend’s house on Monday night after the power went out. He realized the fire was moving fast in the direction of the foothill neighbourhood above the Pacific where he had lived for 25 years.
“The orange glow was cresting the hill and you knew this place was going to go up,” he said.
Murray, who was off duty at the time, turned to help his neighbors instead of hurrying to the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office as he normally would.
“There was so much to do in my neighbourhood,” he said.
Nearby, paramedic Richie Fredell picked his way through the wreckage of the home where he and his brother grew up. It was special to them, he said, a respite offered by an aunt who took them in while their parents battled substance abuse.
Now the brothers returned the favour, sheltering their aunt at a family home in Sacramento after fire destroyed her house, leaving little but chunks of concrete and the blackened remains of a refrigerator.
Fredell, 38, lives in San Mateo in Northern California. In October, he was deployed to deadly fires that decimated the city of Santa Rosa and parts of the state’s storied wine country.
He said he now views such tragedies through a new lens and hopes his personal experience of loss will help him better serve others.
“You see people’s houses burn down and you commiserate with them, but you don’t have a personal connection with it until something like this happens,” he said.