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Volunteers help save tiny coastal town of La Conchita from California wildfires

The tiny community of La Conchita narrowly dodged the massive Thomas Fire burning across Ventura County. A group of young volunteers was key.
Image: Firefighter Ryan Spencer
Firefighter Ryan Spencer battles a wildfire as it burns along a hillside toward homes on Dec. 7, 2017 in La Conchita, Calif.Jae C. Hong / AP

LA CONCHITA, Calif. — Christian Bennett watched helplessly in the wee hours of Tuesday morning as his father’s apartment building crumbled in flames.

When the home in the city of Ventura went down, his great-grandfather’s World War II medals and mementos — like a Japanese battle sword — went with it.

Two nights later, the ferocious Thomas Fire surged north toward the tiny coastal hamlet of La Conchita and the 22-year-old Bennett and his friends felt they could not stand by.

"All of our friends and families had already lost so much," Bennett said Thursday afternoon. "We were all like, 'We are not going to lose another one. We are not going to lose another home.'"

So Bennett and three friends — all state lifeguards and in training to become paramedics — assembled in La Conchita outside the house of a fifth comrade, Luke Hart, also an ocean lifeguard and paramedic-in-training.

The friends turned themselves into a volunteer fire squad and, by many accounts, helped preserve Conchita, a community that already had suffered more than its share of natural disasters.

Photos: Wildfire devours homes in Southern California

"It’s nice to know when you leave that there are people here who will look out for you," said Sue Harrison, chair of the La Conchita Community Organization, the quasi-government of the unincorporated community just across State Highway 101 from the Pacific Ocean. "While we were out, everyone went and got the hoses and helped put the fire out.” Harrison had evacuated to her motor home, camping just up the coast for the night.

A wildfire threatens homes as it burns along a hillside in La Conchita, California on Dec. 7, 2017.Jae C. Hong / AP

La Conchita, population 325, also got an assist after midnight Wednesday from professional firefighters from Ventura, Santa Barbara and Roseburg, Oregon.

"We are not going to lose another one. We are not going to lose another home."

Self-sufficiency has been a must in the community for decades. It’s isolated from much larger Ventura on the south and Carpinteria on the north. It’s only proper business, a gas station, closed down years ago. There was once a banana farm on the north end of town. And locals tend to like self-propelled forms of locomotion--beach cruiser bikes, surfboards and kayaks principal among them.

A haven for retirees and free-spirits fleeing the city, the community gained its greatest renown in 2005, when the coastal bluff that looms behind it collapsed. A portion of La Conchita disappeared, in an instant, under 400,000 tons of mud. Seven adults and three children died. A broad scar in the 500-foot cliffside was left behind, now turned gray with ash and soot.

The landslide calamity happened so quickly “nobody had a chance to do anything,” recalls said Mike Bell, La Conchita’s unofficial mayor and Harrison’s brother. With the fire circling and hopping across Ventura County this week, though, locals had the opportunity to fight.

One man acquired a fire hose and figured out how to open a hydrant. Bell, retired from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said that the resident and other locals used the makeshift setup to spray down an abandoned house that caught on fire, subduing the flames until professional firefighters arrived to finish the job.

Bennett, Hart and three other friends — Tucker Zimmerman, Nick Givens and Sean Dore — scouted the fire intently through the night Wednesday. It began as a mere glow on the other side of the mountains, until the winds shifted and flames leapt down the hillside behind Hart’s father's home, tornadoes of flame throwing off huge embers and blast-furnace heat.

At around 1 a.m., the volunteers ran to alert the homes along Vista del Rincon, the street closest to the hill. At empty houses, they turned on sprinklers, lined up garden hoses and wet down trees and shrubs that were closest to the structures — a collection that runs from funky bungalows to two-story apartments.

Firefighter Ryan Spencer battles a wildfire as it burns along a hillside toward homes on Dec. 7, 2017 in La Conchita, Calif.Jae C. Hong / AP

News crews who had been in the community overnight said they were amazed that many of the homes in La Conchita did not burn. Sometime after midnight, locals said, an onshore breeze suddenly blew in from the ocean to offer a mild retort to the fierce Santa Ana winds driving the fire. The cooler breeze was not enough to put out the flames, but it steered them slightly to the south and away from homes.

Bennett said he had been running on very little sleep for three days — kept afloat with vodka and coffee. Hours after the firefight, he he wore a pair of gym shorts, a sweatshirt and a black respirator. It wasn’t entirely clear why he was toting a toy Nerf machine gun. “People went from yelling at us to get away to thanking us,” he recalled.

A decade before the killer 2005 landslide, the hill above La Conchita had given way for the first time, taking out nine houses, but leaving no human casualties. Locals blamed an avocado orchard atop the bluffs for the slides, saying that over-watering had loosened the earth. But now a new owner of the avocados has decreased and diverted he irrigation and the hill appears more stable, even though the state of California never followed through with a stabilization plan, Harrison said.

The next test will be this winter’s rains. The firestorm left no visible vegetation on a hillside that still towers over La Conchita.

“All that loose debris and mud and ashes has got to go somewhere,” said Harrison. “So if we have heavy rain, not good. But if you live here, you don’t have a choice. This is just kind of what we do.”

CORRECTION (Dec. 8, 11:50 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the city in Oregon that sent firefighters to La Conchita. The city was Roseburg, Oregon, not Rosemond.