Community Members Help Each other in Thomas Fire Recovery

A month after they found themselves first in the crosshairs of the Thomas Fire, residents of Upper Ojai are pitching in to help each other rebound from the fire's toll on their community.

Every day, a grass routes assistance center springs up in this semi-rural community in the parking lot of the Stagecoach market at the summit of Highway 150.

It's a place where those whose property was damaged or destroyed can pick up donated food, clothing and other items.  And where kids can do arts and crafts. It now has a formal name, Upper Ojai Relief, and also has become a clearinghouse for volunteers who will help with needed work or repairs or fire debris removal.

"We're starting from absolute scratch. We got out with the clothes we had on," said Kass Voyson, a contractor who not only lost his rental home, but also all of his tools for work. "The only way we have anything is from these guys."

Voyson, wife Heather, and their six children, ages 3 to 21, were staying in a motel until this past week when a mobile home became available and they were able to return to Upper Ojai. He credits Upper Ojai Relief volunteers with helping prepare the pad, and thanks the neighbor who invited the family to stay on his property.

"It's turned into a healing center," said Trevor Quirk, a local resident whose home survived the fire and who has become the prime mover behind Upper Ojai Relief.

It began with a desire not to let the leftovers go to waste, he said.

Just days after the what would become the largest wildfire in recorded California history burned through upper Ojai, residents organized a spirit-boosting pancake breakfast. 

Quirk found he had additional food to distribute, and the owner of the Stagecoach market offered to make space available. Soon a broad spectrum of donated articles were arriving, and cargo containers appeared for storage.

"This fire has reignited the community and brought people together," said Quirk. An attorney like his wife, he asked her to take over his practice while he devotes full time to Upper Ojai Relief.

Quirk said as requests come in, he posts the need on the Upper Ojai Relief releif facebook page, and is astounded by how quickly donors materialize.

"It's like Amazon on steroids," Quirk said. He's hopeful the relief movement will grow and ultimately be prepared to assist with re-building.

Other groups, including Ventura-based Help California, are also providing assistance to those affected by the Thomas Fire.

"This community...has been resilient," said Pam Colvard. "Neighbor helping neighbor. It's been one of the most amazing things to witness."

Colvard and her husband Steve run the Painted Pony Farm, which hosts tours for school children. Their farmhouse survived the fire, but there was extensive damage to fences and growing beds. 

"We feel really fortunate. We had an army of volunteers to help clean up." Colvard said she's optimistic the farm will be ready to begin welcoming student groups in spring.

Amid powerful Santa Ana winds, the Thomas Fire ignited he evening of December 4th just east of Upper Ojai near Thomas Aquinas College.  About half an hour later, fire officials confirmed, there was a second point of origin in the Upper Ojai slopes near Koenigstein Road.

From the first point of origin, the fire quickly reached the Ventura Ranch KAO campground, burning through the upper portion, and destroying nearly 20 structures, said owner Scott Cory. He said repair work is underway and is hopeful the campground will be able to reopen to the public in spring. Meantime, it is providing space for approximately 16 nearby residents left homeless by the fire, Cory said.

After burning 281,983 acres, the Thomas Fire was finally declared fully contained on Thursday.

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