By Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin CosselDecember 11, 2017
VENTURA, Calif. -- Calm cloaked the anguish as residents of Ventura, California, their homes ravaged by the Thomas Fire, lined up at the Temple Beth Torah parking lot Saturday waiting for the chance to see their home, perhaps grab a few items, to know what -- if anything - was left.
"What we're doing here is shuttling residents back to their homes, giving them about half an hour or so to collect a few items, see what's left and then bringing them back down here," said Ventura City Police Sgt. Kenny Welch.
Welch said it's still far too dangerous to let residents fully return to their homes as downed power lines, possible mix of toxic chemicals from the fire and other hazards, make the area unsafe for a full return.
In addition to Ventura City Police, Soldiers from the California Army National Guard's 140th Chemical Company sat behind the wheel of large passenger vans, augmenting their law enforcement counterparts, shuttling people into the affected area, helping unload their precious belongings once they'd returned.
"Its been absolutely heartbreaking taking some of these folks back to their homes," said Spc. Alex Lavritzen, of Palmdale.
Lavritzen said many of the people he was shuttling back and forth had no idea what the status of their homes was before he shuttled them to the area. Sorrow was mixed with joy as some residents were spared. Others lost everything.
"As hard as this is, I'm really glad we're out here and able to help these people in any way we can, especially during the holidays," Lavritzen said.
"We would not be able to do this at the rate we are without the Guard's help," said Welch. "We've easily been able to increase by a factor of four times, the amount of people we're able to take up into the affected area."
In addition to the increased manpower, Welch said the California Guard members brought with them a level of organization and professionalism, much appreciated by the local law enforcement officials and the residents of Ventura.
"I've talked to a few of our community members and they've had nothing but great things to say about the men and women of the California Guard - they're personable, kind and extremely thoughtful," Welch said.
Lavritzen and the other Soldiers of the 140th Chemical Company had recently returned from duty supporting operations in Santa Rosa in the wake of the devastating North Bay Fire which destroyed more than 7,000 homes and buildings.
"I've definitely provided more direct, hands-on assistance with this fire," Lavritzen said. "It feels good to be able to look at folks, look them in the eye, shake their hands … that's what we do -- Californians helping Californians."