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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/.