Monday, January 08, 2018

Fire, Devastation, and Living Life to the Fullest

by Merri
January 8 2018

'The secret of change is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new’ - Socrates

It takes a very special person to suddenly lose almost everything you own, and still exude rays of sunshine, overflowing with gratitude and humor, leaving no room for any self-pity and sparing few thoughts for your own predicament.

Endurance rider Kristine Hartman is just such a person.

In the destructive wake of the Thomas Fire, which started December 4, 2017, near Ventura, and ultimately grew in to California's largest wildfire by size in recorded history (as of January 5, the fire is still burning at over 280,000 acres and 92% contained), the Hartmans lost everything except for their two endurance horses, truck and horse trailer, a 1967 VW bug, and the clothes on their backs.

From very early on the morning of December 4, things were just strange in Ventura. "It was one of those things," Kristine recalls, "where you wake up in the middle of the night and think, 'Holy cr@p, why is it so windy?' I went out to run that morning, and it was just a Different Wind. I think back to it, it was like the Devil Winds. It was eerie. I couldn't even run, the wind was so bad."

Instead, Kristine spent the morning playing with their two endurance horses, Sam and Tessie, boarding at the historic Aliso Ranch, a stable/working cattle ranch 12 miles away. With the Santa Ana winds still gusting horrendously, it was impossible to ride, so she just worked the horses a bit in the round pen and hung out with them a while.

"Mike [Kristine's husband of almost 30 years] had an early flight to San Antonio early that morning. Thank God I was home that evening, because I got a call from a ranch manager at about 8:30, asking everybody to come and just hook up their horse trailers and stay and be ready to pull out, because there was a fire in Santa Paula." That was around 13 miles from the ranch, and the winds were howling in their direction.

"There's so many times we're not home - we travel, and we're gone a lot, or I'm busy, or sometimes Mike has the truck with him at the airport. It's so good things worked out the way they did."

Kristine drove to the stables and hitched up and, with the other boarders, waited to see what might happen. "It was dark now, and you could see the glow of the fire. And in my mind I was thinking, oh how horrible that Santa Paula is on fire. Turns out that town was barely touched.

"Then all of a sudden this glow got bright, within 20 minutes. It moved FAST. They say it was burning a football field every 10 seconds. 9:06 PM was a glow, and by 9:20 we were pulling out and the fire was literally coming, and by 9:34 the flames were there."

Thanks to fast thinking ranch managers, everybody got out, all the horses were saved, and despite 7000 of their 7500 acres burning, they saved all the old buildings on the place as well.

With drivers literally watching over their shoulders as the flames approached the ranch, the caravan of trailers headed to the Ventura Fairgrounds 15 miles away, located right on the beach.

By then, Ventura had lost all power and was completely dark, and the Fairgrounds had just one generator running one light. The scene there was organized chaos. Kristine put her two horses in stalls, and spent the next hour getting them settled and fed while battling wind and dust and the smell of smoke.

"It was around 11 PM, and I finally paused and looked up towards the mountains and Ventura, and I saw the glow of fire. It was like - holy $@*#. I remember exclaiming the F word, and 'My hill's on fire.'

"And I took off running in my Mary Jane shoes for our condo."

Kristine is an ultra-runner, so running a mile and a half uphill didn't strike her as odd. Neither, at the time, did the fact that she was running toward a catastrophic, raging fire in gale force winds.

"I got to our street. It was so eerie because cars were driving down - and in the movies, you expect to hear the firemen saying 'Get out, fire!' and all that, but because it caught everybody so off guard there was nobody. No sirens, no firemen, nothing. Besides the roar of the fire and wind, there was silence. It was weird."

At this point, the fire had reached Kristine's street, but the building wasn't yet burning. Kristine ran inside her dark and smoky home, and she grabbed a computer hard drive and the keys to her 1967 Volkswagen, which was in the carport.

"I love this Bug. I couldn't believe she started, because I hadn't driven her for a while. And on a side note, I'm a major Bob Marley nut and I just love reggae. When my Bug finally started after a few tries, Bob Marley started blasting. I remember actually smiling, because he always makes me so happy, and it was almost like - it's going to be OK, because there's my reggae music."

She got the car downhill 3 blocks to a main street and parked - then she got out, and ran - back up toward her house. "I don't know why I thought I was going to be able to do anything. But I ran back to the house, which was now starting to burn, and I got up 4 steps. And that's when I felt the suck of hot air, and the palm fronds were exploding and dropping embers on me. I turned and ran back." She even took photos and a video while running. "I truly still thought everything was going to be okay, that firemen were going to show up and put out the fire, because that's what happens in the movies. I thought, 'Mike's never going to believe me how close the fire was.'" Kristine laughs about it now. "Those were my thoughts at that moment."

But now with her home burning and the fire raging just less than 2 miles from the Fairgrounds, her instinct was to get back to her horses. "So I was the crazy lady in the old VW. There were traffic jams everywhere, so I drove in the wrong lanes against traffic. I didn't care. I ran red lights, and went right back to my horses. It was all so surreal."

Kristine sat up all night in her truck, watching the fire burn the town just a few blocks away, and getting out to check on her horses, ready to take them for a swim in the Pacific Ocean if the flames or sparks reached the Fairgrounds barns. She thinks she called Mike around 1:30 AM (3:30 AM in Texas), waking and shocking him with the news of the fire and destruction.

He made it home the next night, and they lived in their horse trailer at the Fairgrounds for the next few days. Friends in Auburn offered to keep their horses, so Mike hauled them up there to get out of the smoke.

And now the hillside above what was Ventura is charcoal, and the homes on the hillside - including theirs - are nothing but rubble. "It is just so sad," Kristine laments. "The devastation is absolutely incredible. But the community of Ventura has been very, very strong. Patagonia as a company - ohmigod. I'm like a walking billboard for Patagonia [based in Ventura], because they gave us coats when they had not even yet opened for business 10 days after the fire, and they gave everything else at a wholesale discount. The manager, the VP, the employees, they literally put their arms around us. Everybody was so gracious.

"It's weird to be on the receiving end. I'm sure you've donated or volunteered. We all do that. But I never ever ever thought I would be in need. At first it was hard to accept anything. But when you find out how slow insurance is, and how we ended up being so underinsured - well that free coat was very special, and that $10 t-shirt instead of $30 t-shirt was very special."

The Hartmans were able to take a break over the Chrismas holidays visiting family. "Life was really good. Then we said bye to them, and we got sad again, because then all of a sudden it was reality again. It's not like we're down and out, but we definitely have our ups and downs because we're discombobulated, especially not knowing where we're going to lay our heads down.

"But we're going to stick it out. We're not giving up on Ventura. We love it here."

The Hartmans are hoping they'll soon be able to visit the ruins of their house, to see if anything at all is salvageable. They had downsized over the years from a 5-bedroom house where they raised their kids, to a 1000 square foot condo for just the two of them, so that everything inside was precious and irreplaceable, from dishware to furniture to mementos: their special wedding rings, her mom's wedding ring, their many years of hand-written travel journals, old photographs, her Tevis and Virginia City 100 buckles and bracelets.

"We would also love to find our special pottery pieces made by a longtime friend that were a spirit horse for Amber [Kristine's former endurance horse] that had her ashes mixed with the glaze and it was filled with Amber’s ashes. Same with the spirit dog for Velika. I swear we feel like we lost these two special girls all over again. It’s all those kind of things that cannot be replaced. Yes, simply personal and priceless treasures."

Throughout this disaster, however, Kristine still tends to think more of other people and organizations that helped victims. Instead of concentrating on her own difficulties, she's been giving shouts out to the community of Ventura that opened their stores and cafes to give free coats and meals, the Red Cross who was there instantly to provide help and food and shelter, the Ventura Disaster Assistance, and the many dear friends that offered help, clothes, shelter, horse board, and new treasures.

She wrote, "I cannot list each of you… as there is simply too many special people to thank. We have been so blessed to have the friends and family that we have.

"It’s simply amazing and we don’t even know how to say thanks and not make that word sound trivial."

Tessie and Sam are now back at their boarding stable. "It's charcoal there, too, trails are burned, but we're hoping for some rain and some spring flowers, and there'll be regrowth again," she affirms optimistically.

Both Mike and Kristine have their down moments, but overall, they are are focused on a favorable future. "What else can you do?" Kristine matter-of-factly says. "Even firemen have asked me how I stay positive. They were hugging me and asking me that, and I said I didn't know.

"It is hard; I mean, i'm 60 now, and Mike's 65, but I just treasure life. Mike and I live life to the fullest. We just try to shine above things, particularly ever since 1995, when he had a massive heart attack when he was only 42 yrs old. I would have been a widow with kids from 3 to 13. I think that taught us a lot. Then shortly after that, we lost all 4 of our parents to cancer.

"And we love each other dearly, and we think as long as we have each other, we can get through anything. And also," she says with a big smile, "how horses are good for our soul."

And ironically - speaking of horses - in the middle of everything, when the AERC year-end points came out on December 15, Kristine learned that her mare, Count On Tessie Flyin finished 8th Featherweight in the Belesemo Arabians Pioneer award, 10th War Mare, and first Featherweight in the Pacific South region. "I've never done that well with a horse in one season. I don't even know about all those points. I don't follow all that. That was definitely icing on the cake!"

Kristine's ridden over 6300 miles of soul-lifting endurance miles since 1996, and that includes 2 Decade teams with FS Amber (whose ashes were likely lost in the fire), and Klassy Sam.

The Hartmans will continue to move forward, taking one day at a time. "We're not yet sure of our plans, but Ventura's a little slice of heaven. And now the ponies are back here safe, we're going to try to get back to normal life. We're going on vacation for a couple of weeks, and then we'll figure out where life's taking us. We're pretty good about rising above adversity.

"Life's been good!"

Photos by Kristine Hartman

**For another story on Kristine and her 2015 Tevis Cup finish on Tessie, riding ever determinedly and ever cheerfully with a broken arm, it's here:
2015 Tevis Cup: Honor and Grit and Kristine Hartman


Unknown said...

A most worthy story. Thanks for posting this.

erbjorum said...

Love this inspiring story. Thanks for telling it.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this beautiful,inspiring story!