Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Ventura County fires hit home for 146th Airlift Wing

Staff Sgt. Tim Dawson, 146th Airlift Wing
Photo By Maj. Kimberly Holman | Staff Sgt. Tim Dawson stands in front of the ashes and debris that was once his home in Ventura, California. The Thomas Fire destroyed his and 4 other Airmen's homes from the 146th Airlift Wing, forcing about 50 wing members to evacuate as the fire raged through the county. (US Air National Guard photo by Maj. Kimberly Holman)
Story by Maj. Kimberly Holman 
146 Airlift Wing, Public Affairs, California Air National Guard  

“I was sleeping when I found out,” recalled Staff Sgt. Tim Dawson of the 146th Airlift Wing. The call startled him half-awake but he ignored it. He was trying to get a good night’s rest before work the next day. Twenty minutes later the phone rang again and he forced himself into semi-consciousness. “It was my neighbor who lives just above my apartment complex on the hill. He told me they were evacuating and that the fire was really close.”
That neighbor on the hill was 1st Lt. Mike Constable, a pilot with the 146th. Dawson said he could see Constable and his roommates packing things into their cars in the driveway. 
“I looked out my window, and could see the sky above the ridge by my home was glowing really orange and red already. My wife and I decided at that point to not do any more research about where the fire was, to just grab what we could get and go somewhere safe.” 
Constable’s house somehow managed to dodge the flames, although the garage was burned, trees were scorched and the front fence was burned on one corner. Dawson’s three-level, 51-unit apartment complex, however, burned to the ground.
The Thomas Fire started on Dec. 4 in Santa Paula, and driven by winds reported to be gusting up to 70 miles-per-hour, the flames screamed across the hillsides toward Ojai and Ventura. Numerous fires leapfrogged from wind-driven embers across Ventura and Los Angeles Counties the following day, and about 50 people from the 146 AW evacuated; five wingmembers lost their homes.
“[My wife and I] each have camping packs, so we stuffed some clothes in,” Dawson went on, describing in detail what exactly he grabbed. Some things were necessity, a few were sentimental, he said. “I knew I couldn’t grab the whole closet, but I grabbed an old baseball cap that one of my buddies had given me as a groomsman gift,” he said, shaking his head at the randomness of some of the packing. “We lost a lot of photos that unfortunately aren’t replaceable because they weren’t backed up digitally, but we know we got out with what’s really important.”
“On the way out the door I managed to grab my two surfboards and a wetsuit,” he added. Surfing has provided some much-needed relaxation and has been therapeutic over the past week, he said. 
Dawson and his wife stopped to take a last look back toward the hills where their home sat just as the flames crested the ridge, and watched as the fire continued its march onward. At about 2 a.m. friends began calling to say they could see his apartment complex on fire. 
He describes experiencing this horrific event as being very surreal. “It’s like I know it’s happening to me, but it’s like it’s I’m watching it happening to someone else.”
Just six days after this tragedy Dawson is back at work and amongst his fellow Guardsmen who he calls family. Dawson works as a C-130 aircraft crew chief with the Maintenance Squadron. “The routine of the mission here I think is helpful,” he said. The past week has been spent “trying to find normal again, getting our ducks in a row…not the way things used to be, but just kind of starting over.” 
“The Guard family takes care of each other,” he added, recalling the two phone calls his friend Constable had made making sure he was getting out.
At the top of his list of those who have been reaching out and taking care of them is Julie Morency, the Airman and Family Readiness Program Manager. “They’ve been calling me every day, setting me up with places to get emergency clothing within the first few days. They gave us a listing of available apartments and all of the available organizations out there to help us. It’s been amazing. My Guard family has been huge in trying to help us get back on our feet,” he said. 
“People from this wing immediately began calling us offering up their personal homes, spare rooms, motorhomes, trailers, cash for food and clothing, the outpouring of support was amazing,” said Morency. “But that’s just what people do around here. It’s not unusual at all. We didn’t even ask, people just offered to do anything they could to help.” 
Dawson forgot to mention one important item that he threw into the car that night. Somehow without even thinking about it he grabbed his uniform and military boots. Perhaps it was so automatic that it didn’t even occur to him as being something he packed—of course his uniform was in the car. “Because it was Monday and I had to go to work the next day…It’s my job… I needed to be ready to go and help out however I could,” he said when asked why he packed it.
Upon reflection Dawson says he and his wife consider themselves very lucky. “We went down to the fairgrounds and saw people still sleeping on cots, who got out with just the clothes on their backs…Some aren’t as fortunate to have the family and support system we have…We’re making due… All we lost were physical connections to memories we’ll never lose. We’re better than a fire burning our things up.”