A massacre and then raging fires: Thousand Oaks grapples with 'nonstop chaos'


An American flag flies at half masters in the Woolsey Firefighters in the background at the Goebel Senior Adult Center (Philip Cheung / For The Washington Post)

In a 24-hour span, Sgt. Eric Buschow worked two tragedies and slept no more than two hours.

A public information officer for the Ventura County Sheriff's Office, Buschow responded late Wednesday to a shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill that killed 12 people. He worked the scene all day, as the FBI arrived and the victims' names became public, before finally going to bed at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Two hours later, he was awake again. The raging of Woolsey Fire, which had begun to fall into his family's home. They were forced to evacuate.

Thousand Oaks is a woman with a lot of tragedies that struck within hours of each other. After the shooting at Borderline, a lot of people said they stayed up late, waiting to hear news. They went to bed physically and emotionally exhausted Thursday, only to be waked in the middle of the night by the blare of the emergency from their phones and frantic knocks at the door from neighbors. They needed to get out, they were told.

"Any of these incidents would be a significant problem at any time," "Buschow said," but to have them actually converge at once is just unprecedented for us. "

Many people are familiar faces. Red Spanish roofs top homes and shopping centers in this family-friendly city, which has dozens of parks and playgrounds.

On Friday, the normally picturesque town was surrounded by smoke.

Buschow and his family were in a community college parking lot. Thousand Oaks were the victims of the evacuation shelters nearby.

His wife and children returned to his house – and he went to work.

30 law enforcement agencies across the state have converged into the Thousand Oaks area, first to help with the shooting, then with the fires.

The FBI was there to investigate the shooting in a scene described as one from hell. Contaminated evidence from the shooting. Patrons threw the windows to escape, leaving behind the holes in the walls that the FBI boarded up, Buschow said.


People pray outside the Alex Flower Thousand Oaks Teen Center that is being used as a wildfire evacuation center for people taking shelter from the Woolsey Fire on Friday. (Philip Cheung / For The Washington Post)

There are concerns that the fire could burn at the bar. Buschow said law enforcement was going to be the mitigation of the risk, and there was a contingency plan.

After working all day on Thursday, the FBI agents retire to their hotel in nearby Agoura Hills, one of several burning wildfires in Southern California. The agents fled, Buschow said. They had nowhere to go, so they also slept in their cars.

"But you know what? At 5 a.m., they were back at the Borderline doing their work, "he said.

One of the fires jumped Highway 101, a thorough thoroughfare that connects people to the valley, clogging transportation and delaying for the first responders.

"It's absolutely been chaotic. Nonstop chaos, "Buschow said.

He added, "Sgt. Ron Helus, a 30-year veteran of the Sheriff's office, was among those killed at the bar.

About three miles from the Borderline, officials had to repurpose the Thousand Oaks teen center. On Thursday, they were where they were among the 12 who were killed. People cried and hugged and prayed. "Son, I love you", "I love you". "I love you." Members of the clergy streamed in the front doors and center.

About 12 hours later, the complex reopened its doors, this time fleeing the wildfire. A gymnasium was filled with green cots. A woman on the toilet, a dog by her side. People wore green masks to protect themselves from the smoke. Others helped themselves to water and food: muffins, granola bars, fruit, croissants and blueberry scones.

At the senior center, next door, a group of mostly elderly residents. A small fire broke out on a hill near the center.

Patricia Reynolds, 57, sat on metal bleachers in the teen's gym with her daughter Lyndsay Witkoski, 25, and her neighbor Mary Ann Best, 90.

She's been a roller coaster for me emotionally, she said through tears. "My heart aches for everyone."

She had stayed up until 4 a.m. Thursday watching news of the Borderline shooting. At night, her phone buzzed : She needed to evacuate her condo complex. Her husband and son were in college in Northridge, Los Angeles neighborhood that is about 35 miles northeast.

"I did not know what to do," Witkoski said through sobs. She was already hurting from the shooting and felt lost. "I decided to come home because I did not know what to do. "


Patricia Reynolds, 57, is overcome by emotions. She is in a temporary dormitory for residents taking shelter from the Woolsey Fire at the Alex Flower Thousand Oaks Teen Center. (Philip Cheung / For The Washington Post)

Seventeen-year-old Karissa Herbert knew what she needed to do. She and her friends came to the center, carrying packages with toothbrushes, deodorant and snacks for the evacuees.

The seniors at Rancho Campana High School in Camarillo, just west of Thousand Oaks, people who survived the Borderline bar shooting. The Borderline is one of the few places in the area where people under 21 can go out at night.

Herbert said she was sending an hourly text message on Thursday. On Friday, she felt the urge to help the wildfire evacuees.

"What are the odds of that happening, a fire right after the shooting?" Herbert said. "The first responders had to deal with the loss of those innocent teenagers and then they have to deal with the fire. It's like, how much can we take? "

Across town, Beatriz Bera sat exhausted in a hotel lobby at 4 a.m. Friday. She and her family were told to evacuate, which they were followed by their property manager, banging on the door. Bera's family comes to a hotel where her mother is a housekeeper.

"It is too much. First with the Borderline shooting, now the fire, "Bera, 21, said.

Lutheran University as the assistant at the University of California put it: "The whole city of Thousand Oaks is tired."

Outside the university's campus, Brandon Apelian waved a white flag with an orange stripe – a banner to honor those battling the blazes – when a classmate walked up to him.

"I just wanted to be out here. You made my day, "said Ramon Olivier, 22, a senior and music production major at the school. "My buddy Meek died."

Olivier had been forced to evacuate while he was still mourning the loss of his classmate Justin Meek, who died in the Borderline bar shooting. The school's president described Meek as "one of the greatest students we've ever had."

Meek and Olivier played water polo at school. Meek was killed trying to save others at the nightclub.

Olivier said, "It hurts me to see everyone else hurt. "This community is so close knit."

katie.mettler@washpost.com

Annie Gowen and Tony Biasotti in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Contributed to this report.

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