The six shooter held by my grandfather the night he was elected Sheriff of Ventura County in 1922 burned in my brother’s house. I mounted it on a piece of the burned framing.
Sheriff Bob Clark (known by the family as Whoopie) started out as a stagecoach driver, later a forest ranger and eventually US Marshall.
Sharp & Savvy: The Clark Brothers By David Mason
Perhaps the greatest testament to the bravery of the two Clark brothers was written by Henry Sparks in his account of the Ojai Fire of 1917.
“When Tom Clark (county supervisor) arrived from his duties at the Courthouse,…he first organized a bucket brigade, sending for all the washtubs in town, then ordered barley sacks and designated certain dependable men to mount the houses with shingled roofs and beat out any blaze there. In this manner, the Pratt House was saved but the Foothills Hotel, lost, as the caretaker would not allow the men a ladder to mount the roof. …As the fire burned itself out, the men rushed to the business section. They only succeeded in saving Tom’s home by the narrowest of margins, losing the second story altogether. Tom continued to fight fire through the night. …In the meantime, Bob and the rest of the Clark family, including the women, were out fighting the flames to save homes between the town and the Thacher School. …Let me repeat what I heard John Lagomarsino tell N.B. Smith,
‘About a dozen of us stayed on the roofs of these buildings for two hours with wet sacks and pails of water. Ten different times the roofs took fire and sometimes in two or three places at a time. …I never saw a man work so hard and use his head so well as Bob Clark did that night. He was badly burned about the face and arms….’ Is it any wonder that the entire Clark family is highly regarded in the Ojai Valley and throughout the entire county?”
Bob Clark was my grandfather, Tom, my great uncle. In 1922 Bob was elected sheriff of Ventura County. The gun he held in the picture taken the day of his election burned in my brother Jim’s house in the Thomas Fire.
From that fire which destroyed so much in Ojai, the Arcade and Post Office emerged as did a community spirit that serves us today.
I saw smoke as I drove home from Ventura and knew it was near the ranch. I stepped on the gas, but was stopped at Creek Road by the police. When I told the officer that I lived there and had to go rescue my dog, he let me pass. The fire was jumping the creek to our ranch side when I got to our bridge. I barely beat it up the hill to my house, but it was burning on another ridge, and continued higher up the hill to my brother’s house—I thought it had passed me by. Fires never do anything expected—the winds changed and it came back down the hill to my house. The fire crew arrived just as the fire did and told me to stay inside—that was the safest place to be. They would come in too if it came to it. As they were backed to the front door I opened it to let them in and they said—we are trying to save the two oak trees in front, but will let everything else burn—a fox ran in between our legs to seek sanctuary in the house. I heard a crash and went to the other side of the house where a window had exploded and the curtains started to burn. I put them out. There was no water. I found out later that buried pipes had melted underground. I dunked a towel in the toilet tank and wore it to protect my head and lungs from the heat. The house was on a hilltop which had been cleared to the dirt, but in the firestorm the flames surrounded the house higher than its two stories. I knew my brother was uphill battling for his house—was he still alive? As the fire passed I opened the door and a rabbit ran in. The fox held the living room and the rabbit the dining room. After the crisis had passed, the firemen stayed to enjoy some watermelon—the only thing left in the garden. I let the animals out of their sanctuary. When I awoke the next day—the yellowjackets had eaten all the rest of the melons. I could not leave the house for about two weeks without all my skin being covered to protect me from ravenous, attacking bees.
The loss of our avocado orchard in that fire changed the course of my life—my sister and I did not replant—I went back to school and became an artist she went back to school and became a writer. We were never meant to be farmers.
Cresting the hill, December 5 2017 – we had watched the glow over the hill (Sulphur mountain) all night, not daring to sleep. It was headed for Ventura and we were hoping it would pass us by. In the morning, after evacuating the horses we came back to this moment of the fire cresting the hill and racing to my brother’s house. It would soon be at ours.
We fled during the firestorm that burned my brother Jim’s house and returned in the afternoon when the wind diminished. I stayed with our dog and the cows in their dirt pasture—the safest place. My husband and our friend Bert went up the hill to save our house. They helped our neighbors with buckets from their pool, they put out the flames at our house with shovels. The wind had calmed and the fire slowly approached down the hill as the cows and I watched. It was monstrous, but hypnotically beautiful.
It leapt Creek road and I wondered which friends were losing their houses. My sister Pat’s house exploded around 5 pm and the house I had saved in 1979 and later sold, was still there when we all left at 6. In the morning it was gone—so were four of the seven homes on the ranch.
The exhibit continues through June.