Johann Dias, ’15, a junior and physics major at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, woke up to multiple notifications: the Apple News application’s breaking story, “Shooting at Borderline Bar & Grill”; texts from friends asking if he was all right, knowing he’d been there three times before; and stories with Justin Meek, a Cal Lutheran alumnus whom Dias said he remembered working at the student union building, being dubbed “a hero” for confronting the shooter who killed him and 11 others.
Only one thought went through Dias’ mind: “What the hell is going on?”
He didn’t sleep the rest of that night, the start of what he called “the craziest five days Thousand Oaks has ever been through.”
Hours earlier at 11:29 p.m., his brother, former Country Day student and current Thousand Oaks High School senior Tristann Dias, had been at the gym M6 Fitness, a mere 15-minute walk from the bar in which shots were simultaneously being fired from a .45-caliber Glock.
Not even 15 hours later, the then-new Woolsey Fire would blast through not a bar, but cities and towns — Oak Park, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Camarillo, Oxnard Shores and Thousand Oaks.
With classes canceled due to the shooting, Tristann Dias was at his friend’s house. His friend was one of the first to escape the shooting — the one whose Instagram video of gunshots followed by his gasping for breath while running went viral on the internet.
Tristann Dias said his friend “wanted people around him to chat with,” so he went over to his friend’s house the following morning.
That afternoon, Tristann Dias said he noticed smoke in the sky; the Woolsey Fire had spread near the Diases’ Santa Rosa Valley home, and smoke engulfed the area.
But that didn’t stop him from trying to go to a ceremony at a local park for those affected by the shooting.
“It took me 45 minutes to move 30 feet down the road,” Tristann Dias said. “Traffic was so awful; no one could go anywhere.”
And for those who’d been told to evacuate, leaving Thousand Oaks was a challenge.
“They had shut down all the freeways and big roads,” Tristann Dias said. “I’m honestly surprised anyone was evacuated.”
Because of the “insane” traffic, Tristann Dias missed the ceremony.
At 2 a.m. the following day, Nov. 9, Johann Dias was up, sleepless again.
“I was chilling with my friends over at their house — on the evacuation line,” he said.
“Then winds suddenly changed, and they were in a mandatory evacuation zone.”
After going outside, Johann Dias said he witnessed the inferno.
“I saw the entire hillside on fire — everything was in flames,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, I guess Thousand Oaks is gonna go bye bye.’”
After attempting to sleep for an hour and a half, Johann Dias drove through the “awful-smelling” smoke back to his house.
Nonetheless, as the fires were just beginning two days after the shooting, Tristann Dias’ high school classes were still in session.
“Everyone was at school, but we could all feel the air and the presence (of the fires),” he said.
Upon leaving school for a blood drive, Tristann Dias said he could see the approaching fires.
“It was a really surreal,” he said. “I felt like I was in a movie looking at the red in the sky and the hills.”
Johann Dias called the next days a “blur.”
While new offshoots of the Woolsey Fires’ blazes razed fields in the Simi Valley and Camarillo, Johann Dias kept dowsing his trees.
One day from 9 to 11:30 a.m., he was hosing trees outside, he said.
“We have a big avocado orchard with dry, dead branches sitting there, waiting to be set on fire,” Johann Dias said. “So I’d drench it repeatedly for two hours.”
Some people were almost “waiting to be set on fire” as well, Tristann Dias explained.
“There were some stupid people who wanted to explore the fires and went fire hunting,” Tristann Dias said. “They’d go to the spots, go up to the hills with active fires and take videos.
“I was asked to go but said, ‘No, I’ll stay home and help my family.’ I didn’t want to be hopping around burnt stuff.”
Both brothers said they remained inside to stay away from the fires.
“No one was really outside unless they were helping,” Tristann Dias said. “That’d also cause a lot of traffic. I’ve brought food to firefighters — because they’re always out there — and dropped off a ton of baked goods.
“There were a lot of people on duty in this area — 12 firetrucks pulled out of nowhere to the house across the street.”
When people weren’t helping out, the only thing to do was wait for the flames to pass.
“It was scary,” Johann Dias said. “All I was doing was talking to people and checking in with my friends who aren’t in state and aren’t in driving distance,” Johann Dias said.
“If you’ve seen ‘This is the End’ with James Franco and Seth Rogen, that’s what things were like: just chilling inside a house during the end of the world, just a bunch of guys inside playing video games, chilling while the world burns.”
Johann and Tristann Dias both explained that they were in a “pinch point,” surrounded by fires on both sides.
“We were lucky that the winds were in our favor,” Tristann Dias said. “The fires came really close multiple times but hit right next door, down the road at Camarillo, and we were right in the center of where everything was going on.”
He added that they were right on the border of Thousand Oaks and Santa Rosa Valley, in one of the only two “safe zones” in the area.
“We live off in the country right on the border of Thousand Oaks,” he said. “After you exit our property, you’re in the town.”
The other safe area, according to Tristann Dias, was his friend’s house. She, unlike the refugees she housed, had her home spared from the fires and her family free from evacuation.
“Two miles away — probably less — the fires were burning houses,” Tristann Dias said.
“But it was like we were on an imaginary line. The area around that line was the safe area; go a little north or south, and that’s where the fires were.”
As fire-free as that line was, traffic bogged it down nonetheless.
“Getting to (my friend’s house) took so long,” he said. “I was blocked off toward the fires, but the traffic away from them was really bad.”
Thus, a typically seven- to eight-minute ride turned into a 45-minute trek through a dystopian scene.
“Looking at Malibu Hills, all I could see was just a huge fire going over the hill — from super small to big (like) a volcano with lava falling down,” Tristann Dias said.
“I went home to shower one day, and everything was pitch black except for orange houses that lit up one part of the sky. There was a huge cloud of smoke, and the fire was illuminating it.”
And although the brothers’ house was removed from active flames, Johann Dias said, there was always a chance it could be next to burn down.
“The wind was being crazy and blowing in every direction, changing every five minutes or every hour,” Johann Dias said.
“At one point at 11 a.m., I saw four helicopters that were circling only a mile or two from us. They were trying to use flame retardant — that’s what freaked me out.”
Without the wind, the Diases’ house was just as susceptible to the fires.
“The country is just filled with greenery and flammable brush and hills,” Tristann Dias said.
“If this area caught on fire, it would spread fast — lots of houses would be done for.”
And as the brothers’ house stayed standing, evacuees came pouring in.
Tristann Dias said that lots of his brother’s Cal Lutheran friends — ushered out of their south Thousand Oaks apartments in a hurried evacuation — stayed at their house.
Other evacuees they housed included a Westlake Village friend and her mother.
Not all stayed for long, Tristann Dias said. Some left the Diases’ house for Camarillo Airport to evacuate via private jet.
But they were all in “survival mode.”
“Everyone — especially parents — was kind of restless,” Tristann Dias said.
“(Emergency) alerts kept everyone awake all the time; they rang super loudly out of nowhere at whatever time. The whole city was awake. No one was asleep. All were on their toes ready if they were next.”
And while families were scattered, Cal Lutheran had only a “voluntary evacuation,” Johann Dias said.
Classes were canceled Nov. 8 and 9 but held the following Monday, Nov. 12, even though evacuees weren’t allowed back on their properties until after 9 p.m. on Nov. 11, Johann Dias said.
“That gave them barely a few hours to get home, go to sleep and go to class the next day,” he explained.
“But being a physics major, I knew that not a single one of us sociopaths — dedicated students — would miss class.”
Academic schedules were challenged too, as the following week was interrupted by the university’s Thanksgiving break, so Johann Dias had multiple tests postponed — one of which he didn’t take until Nov. 28, 20 days after the fires’ start.
Johann and Tristann Dias, like most Thousand Oaks residents who were running on “basically no sleep for five days,” had to keep busy.
“We went from the shooting to a fire in 14 hours, and we were all in shock,” Johann Dias said.
“Everyone was so flabbergasted at how it occured so quickly.”
The speed at which events occurred may have been seen as the only “silver lining,” Johann Dias said.
“The fires didn’t give people time to mourn because they were forced to evacuate,” he said.
“Newbury Park members with families and friends at the bar when the shooting occurred were in the mandatory evacuation zone, so they picked up their stuff and moved only hours after the shooting.”
The immediacy of the sequential tragedies forced people to keep going. Staying busy kept people’s minds off the shooting, which Johann Dias said helped “everyone reach that sense of closure.”
“If you were to ask anyone in the Thousand Oaks community, they’d know at least one person who was (at Borderline),” he said.
“One of my buddies dove out the window at (Borderline) and got cut by glass; he isn’t talking about it.”
Johann Dias said that for Thousand Oaks residents, only the shooting resulted in hospitalizations, but structural damage was common with both the shooting and the fires.
“(The bar)’s all closed, and I haven’t heard anything about anyone reopening it,” he said.
“There was so much damage to the property; bar stools were thrown out the windows. I don’t see them opening back up for another six months at least.”
But businesses, like Borderline, were typically spared from blazes because the majority of buildings burned were residential.
“A lot of the area was impacted, but not many commercial areas were,” Johann Dias said. “What we saw go were just lots of houses.”
And in the aftermath, Johann Dias received a louder “wake-up call” than he’d received five days previously at 3 a.m.
“It didn’t feel like this is reality,” he said.
“(Thousand Oaks) is one of the safest cities in California. You would never expect a tragic shooting to happen here or people to lose their homes in fires.”
Johann Dias, Tristann Dias and their mother had also survived Ventura County’s Thomas Fires that ravaged Southern Californian fields in December 2017.
Although, according to CalFire.gov, last year’s Thomas Fires scorched 281,893 acres while Woolsey’s flames torched only 96,949 acres, nearly 500 more buildings were destroyed in the latter.
Faced with the increased likelihood of property damage in the future, the entire Dias family is reconsidering their choice to live in Southern California .
“My mom the other day said she doesn’t know if she can keep dealing with this,” Tristann Dias said. “Every year a fire happens here at this exact same time — right near the beginning of the holidays — and the holiday season can be stressful enough.”
And according to Johann Dias, who said he was set on living in Southern California long term, the fires have been yet another element that’s changed his mind.
“I want to work out of Southern California still, but I’m not sure if I want to live here,” he said.
“The land around our house is so flammable; the winds were in our favor this time, but that’s no guarantee for the next.”
In addition to the fires, Johann Dias said the smoke has affected him.
“This air quality wouldn’t have gotten to me five years ago, but my lungs definitely felt it this time.”
The poor air quality is matched by poor drinking water, Johann Dias said.
“The water quality in the valley is awful, almost nonpotable,” he said.
“When you’re drinking tap water (in Thousand Oaks), it’s OK, but then you go 40 miles, it’s horrible — you’re tasting things in the water you know shouldn’t be there, and it’s funky.”
Johann Dias further said the water crisis was multifaceted.
“There’s such growing industry here — a rapidly growing, tight-knit entrepreneurial community — but us trying to maintain all this agriculture in this dry state is unreal.”
Unfortunately, according to middle school Earth science teacher Cade Grunst, climate change and a legacy of poor foresting habits will make these fires increase in severity and frequency.
“The distribution of rainfall — where and when — is changing,” Grunst said. “We’d usually expect some rainfall in October or November to decrease dry conditions, but now it’s falling later, and there are longer and longer stretches of dry weather.”
But Grunst said that forestry management practices could be improved to reduce risk.
“Forest practices for the past 100 years have been to put out all fires,” he said. “We haven’t invested in practices like controlled burns because some wildfire-prone land is on federal land.
“There’s 100 years’ worth of fuel on the forest floor — we need to let small fires burn out naturally.”
Johann Dias, now a survivor of two major fires, agreed.
“What the Trump administration is doing by mitigating claims and saying this is the worst-case scenario is baloney,” Johann Dias said.
“They should be taking it seriously and doing something about it. We all should, really, because this is our reality. It’s not an anomaly.”
—By Chardonnay Needler
Originally published in the Dec. 4 edition of the Octagon.