When Patricia, 74, and Tony, 78, Dykes — along with their daughters, son-in-law and grandkids — went out on the front yard of their Ventura home the evening of Dec. 4, all eyes turned toward Santa Paula. There in the distance a long wall of flames was coming over a hill, like some behemoth on a double-time relentless march. 

“We’ve got to get out! We’ve got to get out!” someone shouted.

The kids ran back into the stucco house high in the foothills east of the city, taking family photos off the walls. A daughter was grabbing clothes out of a closet. Patricia shuffled through filing cabinets pulling out medical information and important papers. 

A granddaughter asked, “Grandma, should I grab these things?” pointing to a collection of Lladro porcelain figurines. 

“No, honey, I don’t think they’ll burn,” she said, believing they’d be back home in a couple of days with a scary wildfire story to tell. Still, she gathered up her small Bible, the book her faith-sharing group was reading on Pope Francis and her Therian (St. Thérèse of Carmel) text.  

But Patricia and Tony didn’t return for more than a week as the Thomas Fire raged through dry hills and canyons choked with chaparral, burning down 500 structures in Ventura alone before widening its path north. 

Disbelief and grief

When they did return, it was on a bus with other evacuees. But, unlike on TV, there was no real suspense.  Seeing 852 High Point Drive X’d out on an online map, they already knew. The home she had raised her children in since 1985 before her first husband died, the home she now shared with Tony since 1996, was gone. Still, seeing it up close for the first time, both were flooded with disbelief, then grief.

The sturdy stucco house with the concrete tile roof they had just put on two years ago was reduced to charred rubble, including a car in the garage. It was as if a precision bomb had been directly dropped on it, with only part of the chimney left standing and some pieces of muster-colored stucco. A smoky haze still rose in spots, and the pungent burnt-ash smell was only partly dissipated. But, amazingly, next door a neighbor’s ranch-style house remained untouched.

Five weeks later, the Dykes were sitting inside the rectory at Our Lady of The Assumption Church. Tony had on a black outdoor vest over a sweatshirt and jeans. Sitting beside him in a small office, Patricia was wearing a jacket and slacks. The couple looked relaxed until they were asked the same thing fellow parishioners had been asking: “So how are you doing?”

Tony glanced sideways at his wife. “A day at a time,” he said, with a tired voice underscoring his words.

“One day at a time,” Patricia echoed. “Our children and grandchildren keep telling us we’re safe, we’re OK. And we totally agree that’s the most important thing.” Then she recalled talking to another woman who lost her family’s home to the fire. And the woman asked, “Aren’t you getting tired of people telling you that this is just stuff that you lost?” 

Patricia had never really thought about that, but remembered saying, “You’re right. To them it was just stuff. But it’s stuff that we can never replace. You know, memories. Things from our parents, our grandparents, our children when they were little. It wasn’t just stuff.”

Her husband was nodding now. 

“If it’s your will”

“I feel that my faith plays the biggest part in my life,” she went on. “I remember going to bed that night, and I prayed all night. I never went to sleep. But I remember saying the rosary on my fingers. And I kept saying, ‘Dear Lord, if it’s your will we will be OK.’ That’s what I kept thinking. And later I thought if it wasn’t for our faith, I don’t think I would be where I am.”

“It’s our faith community as well,” pointed out Tony. “It’s the people here at church who have reached out and really made me humble. They write on a piece of paper ‘This is our phone number. Call us.’ It’s kind of hard to put into words. Ah, I’m gonna tear up.” 

And he did, adding, “The community kind of brings the whole thing together. When you think about it, that’s what it’s all about. I was more worried about the folks on the very top of the hill behind us. I prayed that they would be safe.”

For weeks after they evacuated, the Dykes stayed with a grandson in Ventura. A few days ago through the parish they finally found a condo to rent.

“And we definitely will rebuild,” said Patricia strongly, who was a secretary at nearby Holy Cross Elementary School for 18 years. “We’re gonna rebuild the same way it was and just pretty much start all over again.”

The retired tool and die maker agreed. “We love the floor plan,” he said, looking at his wife again. 

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