Fire Casts a Glow on True Heroes

1StrawberriesCoverWooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

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Thomas Fire Casts a Glow on True Heroes

When the Thomas Fire burned my father’s home down to the ground, my boyhood bedroom went up in flames.

Lost, among more valuable things, were posters of Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, Bart Starr and Leroy Kelly, and more heroes from youth.

After the smoke cleared, this clarity: How misguided to consider someone a hero because he can hit a jump shot in the clutch, zip a backhand passing shot, throw a touchdown spiral.

Today, the poster I would want to hang up is an enlargement of a photograph I saw from the atrocious Thomas Fire. It is picture of a true hero. A firefighter.

1firemencourageStriding boldly through smoke and embers toward the camera, he is faceless, a good-guy Darth Vader behind a helmeted breathing mask. His firesuit looks like an astronaut’s lunar spacesuit, except instead of white it is soot-smudged tan with rows of neon-green-and-silver reflective stripes.

From his toolbelt hangs a flashlight. His black-gloved fists clutch a crowbar and red-headed fire axe. Deacon Jones, from another poster turned to ash, never looked more fearsome. The firefighter is ready for real battle, not the gridiron kind.

Hercules’ second labor was to defeat Hydra, a monster so devilish that every time the mythical Greek god chopped off one head, two would grow back. The Thomas Fire has seemed to multiply similarly.

Thousands of real-not-mythical heroes have been laboring to defeat this Pyra beast. Heroes from throughout California and also Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Idaho and Washington.

Not only do firefighters, and other first responders, put their lives on the line – and frontline – helping others, but something that often goes underappreciated is they are thus absent from their own loved ones during trying times.

Another poster-worthy photograph taken during this Cal-amity features the black silhouette of a lone firefighter against an orange inferno backdrop. It is impossible to tell if the firefighter is walking forward toward the camera or away with back turned.

Actually, it seems certain the firefighter is stalking from the lens and towards the flames because that is what these brave heroes do.

If the world were fair and just, firefighters – not superstar athletes – would be on bedroom posters and have multimillion-dollar salaries. Like pro athletes, firefighters too often wind up with prematurely broken bodies, not to mention scarred lungs.

While it seems firefighters should wear capes, like Superman or Batman, one thing has proved beyond the powers of these real-life superheroes the past ten days: buying their own meals or cups of coffee. Seemingly every time they try, local restaurant owners or patrons pick up the tab and rightly so.1venturaspaULASTRONG

I did not know it at the time, but I was boyhood friends with two such heroes – rather, future heroes. And I have been manhood friends with a third firefighter for a quarter century.

Thinking of my friends Don and James and Hall, and their brave brethren, I am reminded of a parable about a man tossing starfish, one by one, back into the ocean after hundreds had been washed ashore by a violent storm.

A second beachcomber walks up and says dismissively, “You’re just wasting your time. There are too far many starfish for you to make a difference.”

Like stranded starfish, there have been too many threatened homes and buildings for firefighters to possibly save them all. And yet they battle on, tirelessly as the tide.

I imagine their answer while protecting a home from flames is the same the first man on the beach gave while tossing a starfish into the ocean: “I cannot save them all, but to this one I’m making a world of difference.”

One final photo: a young girl wears a disposable respirator mask outside her Ventura home. On a wall she has written, in chalk of pink and orange and blue and yellow; in block letters and in script; and written also in love: “Dear Firefighters, Thank You for Saving our Home.”

I wish every fire station could have a poster of this picture on a wall.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …

Grace and Hope in Time of Calamity

1StrawberriesCoverWooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

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Grace and Hope in Time of Calamity

I write and file this column midweek, when the fierce and pitiless winds are at a lull, and so the drama will have resumed by the time you read this. All the same, these sentiments will surely have been reinforced when the devilish Santa Anas roared anew.

I write these words after returning from a middle-of-the-night evacuation and, blessedly, finding my home still standing.

I write this bleary-eyed – and with tears in my eyes.1venturastrong

I write this with a heart that feels like it has been stomped upon by a marching band wearing army boots, yet I write this also with a heart filled with love and pride and hope because of the way my longtime hometown has responded to the home-and-heirlooms-purloining Thomas Fire.

Ventura, perhaps as never before, has shown itself to be We-tura.

So, too, has this same spirit emerged in Sant-Us Paula and Our-jai, and all our local communities, as the Thomas Fire scorched a path like General Sherman marching from Atlanta to the sea during the Civil War.

Indeed, when I write “I” here it truly echoes of “we” because the Thomas Fire touched us all in similar ways.

As mentioned, I (we) had to evacuate when flames crested a hill from the north and encroached Foothill Road with our home mere yards across the two-lane blacktop on the south. At 3 a.m. I (we) knocked on front doors and honked car horns to make sure our neighbors were awake and we all got the hell out of Hell’s way.

I (we) had countless friends, co-workers and family members who likewise needed to evacuate and worried about them one and all, as well as about those we do not know at all.

I (we) felt an earthquake rattle my soul learning about dear and longtime friends who lost their homes in Clearpoint and, as the fire surged on, in Ondulando.

I (we) learned of more friends, further down the fire’s path, who similarly were suddenly made homeless.

I (we) worried about relatives – me, about my father’s home at the ocean’s-view-crest of Ondulando and, below in the same tract, my eldest brother’s home and the home of one of my nieces. These fears extended a mile away to my other older brother’s home that lay directly in the evacuated path of this vicious monster.

I (we) hoped against hope all my family members’ homes – along with everyone’s homes – would survive.

Finally, I (we) learned of these fates, one by one: My niece’s home escaped unharmed, as did my older brother’s home. Meanwhile, the fire made a Pickett’s Charge-like charge and overtook the backyard fence of my eldest brother’s home before being defeated.

As for the fate of my 91-year-old father’s home, a home he has lived in for 44 years, his home that holds so much of my late mom? Answer: a solemn shake of the head, “no.” It is gone. Memories from half of a long lifetime disappearing in flame and smoke in a cruel instant.

Thinking of my father and my (our) friends, co-workers, neighbors and everyone who lost their homes, I (we) feel “Home” Survivor Guilt.

Why did my (our) home survive and theirs did not?

1friemanThere but for the grace of god, and the direction of the fickle winds, goes my (our) home instead of theirs.

Grace certainly was on abundant display. Our family members and friends naturally offered one another helping hands and shelter, food and drinking water, hugs and compassion – and so did strangers offer these same things to strangers.

In other words, in Latin, E pluribus unum – “out of many, one.”

Firefighters, as always, were heroes. In truth, however, most everyone rose to the occasion, standing tall and together like our famous “Two Trees. ” It seems a fitting simile, for while our iconic landmark was charred by the Thomas Fire, what it symbolizes – standing side by side as We-Trees – remains unconquerable.

I (we) have never been more heartbroken for my hometown, and yet conversely my heart has never been filled fuller for We-tura.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …

Column: Honoring 19 Fallen Heroes

Heroic Idea Sparked by Oxnard Native


“We can’t all be heroes,” Will Rogers once observed, “because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.”


This Saturday past, at a small-town parade in Arizona, Rogers had it a little wrong: nobody was sitting on the curb clapping for the heroes.


            At the Prescott Frontier Days Parade the spectators all stood to applaud and honor the 19 elite Granite Mountain Hotshots who perished on June 30 while fighting an out-of-control inferno.RiderlessHorse


            The parade route on July 6 looked like it could have been the Fourth of July on any Main Street, USA. Indeed, little imagination is needed to picture the parade going through downtown Ventura or Fillmore or Oxnard.


            In fact, Oxnard played a key role in the Prescott Frontier Days Parade for it was a local native son who had the idea to honor the fallen heroes with a riderless horse.


Brian Besser graduated from Oxnard High in 1971, two years behind his brother John. They well know that what happened to the Hotshots could happen here when the Santa Ana winds howl.


The “Besser Boys” also know about horses. In fact, they may have an equestrian gene. When their mother Barbara was in high school in the late 1930s, she frequently rode with Carmelita Fitzgerald, the granddaughter of Adolfo Camarillo. As an adult Barbara rode the famed Camarillo White Horses – specifically the feisty “Paisano” – in the Hollywood Christmas Parade, among others.


“Throughout this period Brian seemed to develop an interest in the horses,” shares about his “kid brother,” adding: “I was more interested in one of Carmelita’s daughters.”


Fast forward. John is retired and living in Laguna Niguel while Brian has moved with his wife to Arizona near Prescott.


Prescott proudly claims to be Home of the World’s Oldest Rodeo, a weeklong extravaganza held annually over the Fourth of July period. The tragic deaths of the Hotshots hit the local community with a vengeance. It would be hard to throw a rope without lassoing someone who either personally knew one of the young firefighters or knows someone who did. Indeed, the brother of Brian’s neighbor was one of the 19. 


In past years, Brian has assembled an equestrian unit to represent the popular establishment Matt’s Saloon in the annual parade along celebrated Whiskey Row. As mentioned, this year he decided to honor the firefighters for their ultimate sacrifice with a single riderless horse.


Just as a deadly raging fire starts with a single spark, a small idea can grow significant given the right conditions. Thirty-six hours before the parade, Brian shared his plan with a neighbor and the kindle took flame with this reply: “Why not use NINETEEN riderless horses?”


            This seemed impossible given such short notice, even in a cowboy community. Understand, seemingly every horse within three ZIP Codes had either already been entered in the rodeo or was committed elsewhere in the parade.


            Just as the Hotshots were a unified crew, so is Prescott. Brian’s neighbor provided the name of a woman involved with the rodeo who might be able to help. She did. Some cowboys overheard and said, “We’re in!” Word quickly spread like, yes, wildfire, and just like that a Kentucky Derby field was assembled.


            Led by Brian and seven other riders each carrying an American flag at the front, with two more riders carrying Matt’s Saloon flags at the rear, the parade entry had 29 horses in all. But it was the 19 horses in the heart of the procession that caused throats to grow tight and tear ducts to loosen and made the spectators sitting on the curb stand up and clap.


The 19 horses were riderless, but not nameless – hanging on each saddle, in purple letters on a black background bringing to mind a Purple Heart medal, was the identity of a fire warrior. Too, resting on each saddle horn was a fire helmet, the majority of them classic red or yellow but a few are black or white. And in the stirrups, reversed, are empty work boots.


So solemn, so powerful. It is no wonder that the winner of the Chairman’s Award was no contest.


Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for the Star and can be contacted at His new memoir WOODEN & ME is available for pre-order at: