This was supposed to be the Ekblad family's first Christmas in their new home, a four-bedroom near a park in Ventura, Calif., that they stretched their budget to buy. Allie Ekblad, 32, says she was ready for the holiday: For once, she had finished Christmas shopping early for her husband, Matt, 2-year-old Jace and 8-month-old Ava.
"The one year I'm ahead of everything," she says, sighing. "I had everyone done, including the kids, stockings, the extended family. All done."
Now the Ekblads are scrambling to re-create this year's Christmas preparations — and everything else in their lives — from scratch. Like hundreds of other families in Southern California, their house burned in the Thomas Fire, which has scorched an area larger than New York City and is on the verge of becoming the second-largest fire in California history.
I'll never get that back
When the family evacuated to Allie's father's house about 20 miles away, they thought they'd be coming right back.
"We lost everything," Allie says. "We had an overnight bag, we had the monitors, my son's teddy bear that he's attached at the hip to, thank God."
Her husband, Matt, would usually be working right now — he's been a firefighter for over a decade, battling wildfires like the one that took their house. Instead, Matt's colleagues are picking up his shifts while he and Allie scramble to mail insurance paperwork, find temporary housing, make calls about rebuilding and try to find their footing.
The Ekblads have seen a flood of support from strangers and friends as they try to figure out their next steps. A GoFundMe page set up by a friend has raised more than $50,000 — and the company where Allie works in marketing is matching the donations.
Allie is grateful and a bit embarrassed by all the help, she says. Even though the kids' Christmas gifts are gone, they will get presents from donated toys. But she says the magnitude of the loss makes it hard to crack a smile.
"I wish this happened when we didn't have kids," she says. "Because there is stuff I can never replace for [Jace]. Little things like his first curl, his first piece of hair, his baby footprints. Stuff like that. I'll never get that back."
One piece of Christmas magic amid the rubble: Allie found the family safe, burned to a crisp. But a container inside it survived. Allie was just 18 when her mother died, leaving behind her jewelry, with a letter for each piece representing a milestone that they would not be able to celebrate together. Allie still has that precious jewelry container, and in it her mother's pearls that she opened on her wedding day, seven years after her mother's death.
The city of Ventura has set up a range of services to help families displaced by the Thomas Fire. There's a website with information about evacuations, boil water orders and air quality. A Local Assistance Center is open seven days a week to help fire victims who have lost everything get their affairs in order. The recent disaster looms over the assistance center; the hillside behind the building is scorched. Inside, fire victims move from table to table, replacing burned licenses and asking about insurance, aid and when their neighborhood might be open again.
Single mom Wendy Hellstrom heads inside, feeling nervous.
"I asked my family for Christmas gifts of food and gas cards, so we can afford food," she says.
Hellstrom is out of work for the next month because of the haze of smoke in the air. She's an athletic coach and her work is outside. Without a paycheck, she can't afford her rent this month, let alone buy Christmas presents for her two kids.
"I had a meeting with my kids two days ago, I sat down and met with them," she says. "I told them, just understand that I'm not going to be able to get you anything but you're going to get some gifts from our family members. And be patient and be a little bit more non-complaining and whining because mom's stressed."
Making a new plan
In the Local Assistance Center's parking lot, the Blomquist family gets out of their truck. They're all wearing pink gas masks to protect from the smoke and ash in the air. The night before the fire, the family was making Christmas cookies. The gifts were nestled under the tree. Since they evacuated, they've changed hotels four times.
"We left with nothing — the dogs, the kids," says Nancy Blomquist, motioning to her 10-year-old twins. "They grabbed a few things and my daughter was like, 'Can we grab the Christmas presents?' My husband said, 'Come on, we're going to be right back.' "
That night, the alarm system started going haywire and she and her husband, Jay, knew the house was lost.
"It's just a stairway to nowhere now. It's gone," Nancy Blomquist says. "We haven't been able to go see it so we can't make peace with it. So we've been buying the toiletries, essentials."
The twins, Alexander and Olivia, are very clear about the new Christmas plan.
"We're going to buy everything again," Alexander says.
"Yeah, we're going to re-buy the gifts," Olivia adds.
Their mother nods.
"This is the first year they bought for each other with their own money. We went back and rebought everything to make it look exactly the same," Nancy Blomquist says.
"We went and bought a little tree for the hotel and we're sprucing it up," she says.
It's not the Christmas they had planned, but it's the best they can do this year.