The Week From Hell

Bor­der­line Dance Floor

Ian Long arrived at the Bor­der­line Bar and Grill in Thou­sand Oaks, Cal­i­for­nia, on Wednes­day night, Novem­ber 7, at 11:15 p.m. Armed with a .45 cal­iber Glock 21 hand­gun, he shot the secu­ri­ty guard post­ed at the entrance and went inside.

The Bor­der­line is a night spot pop­u­lar with col­lege stu­dents. On Wednes­day nights, it fea­tures west­ern-style line danc­ing. The dance floor was packed with stu­dents from Pep­per­dine Uni­ver­si­ty, Cal­i­for­nia Luther­an Uni­ver­si­ty, and Moor­park Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege.

Long fired into the crowd.

Sgt. Ron Helus

Sergeant Ron Helus, a 29 year vet­er­an of the Ven­tu­ra Coun­ty Sheriff’s Office, was talk­ing to his wife on the phone when a report of an active shoot­er came across his radio. “Hey, I have to han­dle a call,” he said. “I love you. I’ll talk to you lat­er.”

He was the first offi­cer to respond. He charged inside, exchanged gun­fire with Long, and was hit mul­ti­ple times. By the time oth­er offi­cers were able to get inside, Long had killed twelve, wound­ed thir­teen, and turned the gun on him­self.

Sgt. Helus died at the Los Rob­les Region­al Med­ical Cen­ter at 2:00 a.m.

Thurs­day morn­ing, the Sheriff’s Office escort­ed a hearse car­ry­ing his corpse to the Ven­tu­ra coroner’s facil­i­ty. Hun­dreds of peo­ple lined the 134 free­way to pay trib­ute to his hero­ism. Dri­vers in oncom­ing traf­fic stopped, got out of their cars, and watched the pro­ces­sion from the guard rail. Fire­fight­ers and police offi­cers stood on over­pass­es and salut­ed as the hearse passed beneath them.

The Woolsey Fire — Mal­ibu

My wife had a doctor’s appoint­ment that after­noon in Thou­sand Oaks not far from the Bor­der­line. We arrived at 2:00 p.m. The Hill fire sprang up just west of Thou­sand Oaks at 2:03 p.m. Anoth­er fire ignit­ed near Woolsey Canyon Road, about twen­ty miles to the north­east, at 2:24 p.m.

When we left the doctor’s office, smoke cov­ered half the sky. As we pulled up in our dri­ve­way, a jet tanker car­ry­ing fire retar­dant flew low over our house head­ing north.

An hour lat­er, the Fire Depart­ment issued a vol­un­tary evac­u­a­tion notice to our neigh­bor­hood, Hid­den Hills. Our daugh­ter and our son live near­by. We texted back and forth. Every­one was safe. No flames in sight. We chose not to evac­u­ate.

At 6:30 p.m. the Fire Depart­ment issued a manda­to­ry evac­u­a­tion order. We were sur­prised. The Hill fire was ten miles west of us, blow­ing away from Hid­den Hills, and the Woolsey fire had received very lit­tle press cov­er­age so we didn’t believe it was much of a threat. Think­ing the Fire Depart­ment was being over­ly cau­tious, we packed one night’s change of clothes, round­ed up our dogs, and drove east.

Our daugh­ter, who also lives in Hid­den Hills, checked with local hotels. They were already booked with evac­uees, so we drove out to our oth­er daughter’s home on the oth­er side of LA, out of harm’s way. Ten min­utes there con­vinced us that our six dogs weren’t meant to live under one roof. We found hotel rooms in Pasade­na and checked in, expect­ing to return home in the morn­ing.

Bell Canyon

The Woolsey fire turned real bad that night, burn­ing homes in Bell Canyon, a few miles north of Hid­den Hills. Winds with gusts of 70 mph blew embers the size of base­balls into neigh­bor­hoods west of my home, set­ting ablaze Oak Park, Agoura Hills, West­lake Vil­lage, and Thou­sand Oaks. The fire jumped the 134 free­way and burned through the canyons toward the ocean. I watched tele­vised images of Mal­ibu homes burn­ing to the ground with a mix­ture of survivor’s guilt and relief that the fire had spared my neigh­bor­hood.

Fri­day morn­ing, my sense of relief proved to be pre­ma­ture. High winds rekin­dled hot spots in Bell Canyon, set­ting scores of hous­es on fire and blow­ing embers south, direct­ly toward Hid­den Hills. Cal­abasas, where my son lives, came under an emer­gency evac­u­a­tion order. As he drove away, flames licked at hous­es on the edge of his neigh­bor­hood.

Fire­fight­ers

The old Ahman­son Ranch, now a nature pre­serve, bor­ders Hid­den Hills on the west near our house. The Ranch caught fire about noon. One tele­vi­sion sta­tion briefly flashed images of a wall of flames march­ing across the ridge behind our home, and I caught a glimpse of heli­copters and air­planes drop­ping water on a field where I walk my dogs, but mad­den­ing­ly, the cov­er­age shift­ed to oth­er areas and nev­er returned to Hid­den Hills.

That night, reports about the fire gave way to reg­u­lar­ly sched­uled pro­grams. From then on, news cov­er­age of the fire was min­i­mal. I spent a sleep­less night, not know­ing if my home had sur­vived.

Sat­ur­day, the winds calmed and the worst seemed to be over. The media was silent about Hid­den Hills. We assumed no news was good news, but the evac­u­a­tion order was still in effect and we weren’t sure if our homes were intact.

Sun­day morn­ing, I could stand the uncer­tain­ty no longer. I drove to Hid­den Hills and was allowed access to my home. To my great relief, it was safe and sound, but with­in min­utes after I unlocked my front door, the winds kicked up again and a hot spot erupt­ed in West Hills, just north of my house.

Fire engines sped up my street to defend the perime­ter of Hid­den Hills, and I was ordered to evac­u­ate again.

Ahman­son Ranch

With­in min­utes, heli­copters and planes were in the air over West Hills and eight fire engines and crews rushed to the flames. They knocked the fire down in four hours. Res­i­dents of West Hills lined the street and cheered the fire crews as they drove away to the next call.

Winds blew hard Sun­day and Mon­day. The fire­fight­ers tire­less­ly beat down count­less flare-ups. Mon­day night, the Woolsey fire still raged in Mal­ibu, but its threat to inland homes declined.

Tues­day at 9:00 a.m., the evac­u­a­tion orders cov­er­ing Hid­den Hills and my son’s neigh­bor­hood were lift­ed, and we went home.

Hold­ing the Line

That after­noon, I walked out to the bor­der of the Ahman­son Ranch. Its fields were char­coal-black. The brush burned up to the edge of my neighbor’s yard, melt­ing the three-rail white vinyl fence that enclos­es it. We would have lost our home if the fire­fight­ers hadn’t stopped the fire right there. There are no words that do jus­tice to the courage, ded­i­ca­tion, and skill of these men and women. We will be for­ev­er grate­ful to them.

By Tues­day night, the week from hell had come and gone for my fam­i­ly, but for many oth­ers, the suf­fer­ing had just begun. As I write this, the tal­ly of homes destroyed in the Woolsey fire exceeds 1500. In the wake of the dead­ly Camp fire in north­ern Cal­i­for­nia, res­cue work­ers have found almost 100 corpses and hun­dreds more are miss­ing. The con­di­tions there are dire. They believe the search for bod­ies will extend well into 2019.

Sgt. Helus’s Funer­al

Most of the fam­i­lies of those killed in the Bor­der­line shoot­ing had to evac­u­ate their homes the day after the mur­ders. The Tues­day I came home, they began to bury their lost loved ones. Memo­ri­als for the slain went for­ward every day that week. Hun­dreds came to hon­or each vic­tim. Over 4,000 peo­ple attend­ed Sgt. Helus’s funer­al, includ­ing hun­dreds of fire­fight­ers and law enforce­ment per­son­nel, most of whom hadn’t slept for days.

The fol­low­ing week, our fam­i­ly came togeth­er at our Thanks­giv­ing table. In the past, we’ve giv­en thanks for what we have, but this year was dif­fer­ent. While so many fam­i­lies in our com­mu­ni­ty were sift­ing through the ash­es of mis­ery and loss, we could still hug our loved ones and hold them close. So this year, we donat­ed fam­i­ly funds to the vic­tims of the shoot­ing and the fires, and we gave thanks for the only thing that mat­tered to us when we thought we might lose every­thing: the safe­ty and health of those we love.

Dona­tions to the Ven­tu­ra Coun­ty Com­mu­ni­ty Foun­da­tion for the vic­tims of the Bor­der­line mur­ders and the Hill and Woolsey fires can be made here: https://vccf.org/. The North Val­ley Com­mu­ni­ty Foun­da­tion is col­lect­ing dona­tions for the Camp Fire vic­tims here: https://www.nvcf.org/fund/camp-fire-evacuation-relief-fund/.