Dana and Dawn Ceniceros stand amid the rubble of what is left of their Ojai home after the Thomas Fire ripped through the Matilija Canyon. The fire is one of the largest in the state's history. They have not joined in a lawsuit filed by other residents claiming utility companies are to blame. (Stephanie O'Neill/NPR)
Dawn and Dana Ceniceros always enjoyed walking visitors through their artsy Ojai home in the remote Matilija Canyon. But the couple never expected to tour what was left of it.
Caught in the path of the massive Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties -- one of the largest fires in California history -- their home is now mostly a pile of rubble and ash. It's one of more than 700 homes destroyed by the blaze that has already consumed more than a quarter of a million acres.
Flames devoured the Ceniceros' home after a wind-fueled flare-up of the Thomas Fire exploded one night along Ojai's northern mountains, devouring many of the homes in the once-lush canyon. Dawn says the couple had evacuated a few hours earlier because of heavy smoke and thought they would be back soon.
"I think back, like the other things I could have taken, and I just didn't believe it was going to happen," she says. "I actually was vacuuming my living room before we evacuated."
Lawsuit Blames Utilities for Contributing to Thomas Fire
And while they took some family heirlooms, they didn't think about the irreplaceable mementos of their 40 years together -- like their children's artwork, a 15-year collection of Dawn's oil paintings, love letters and other treasures that date back to their teen years together.
"She had these beautiful little sketchbooks, stories of when we were teenagers, and those were in a hope chest, and they're all gone," Dana says.
Ventura County attorney Alex Robertson has spent days on the phone with people in the same position as Dawn and her husband: They've lost everything.
Robertson filed a lawsuit this week on behalf of some residents and business owners against two utility companies and the city of Ventura. Dawn and Dana Ceniceros are not part of the suit.
The lawsuit contends, in part, that Southern California Edison crews working above a campground near the town of Santa Paula are the likely cause of the fire.
"They were working up there before the fires started, and then at about 6:20 p.m., one of our clients who worked at the campground observed an orange glow coming from that canyon, and that's where the fire started," Robertson says.
Officials at the electric company declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the utility is cooperating with fire investigators.
The suit also alleges that water hydrants operated by the city of Ventura and the Casitas Municipal Water District didn't work properly.
"Many people are very angry at the water companies because the firemen were just standing there," Robertson says. "You know, they had plenty of firemen and firetrucks on their streets, but they had no water."
The water utility says that its fire hydrants were working and that it's not liable for any of the losses. The city of Ventura did not respond to interview requests.
As they move forward, Dawn and Dana Ceniceros point out that their last name means "from the ashes."
"We're going to sift through this ash, and any little broken piece or whatever I'm going to reclaim it and make something beautiful out of it," Dawn says.
NPR's Isabel Dobrin in Digital News produced this story for the Web.
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