Burned but not Bowed: The Ventura Family Robinson rebuilds

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“We make a great team,” say Tom and Marty Robinson, reflecting on their rebuilding efforts.

By Mike Nelson | Photos by Viktor Budnik

If they haven’t visited Marty and Tom Robinson’s Southwest Pueblo-style home in the foothills of northeast Ventura’s Ondulando neighborhood in, say, five years or more, guests could be forgiven for thinking, “Hey, same as before.” At least, initially, given the bright and spacious interior, the comfortable furniture throughout, the engaging artwork and, especially, the presence of Akeelah, the Robinsons’ 6-year-old pit bull mix, who makes herself comfortable by laying on the floor next to a guest, her head using said guest’s foot as a pillow.

Upon further inspection, though, visitors might notice some changes. The furniture is new. So is the artwork — mostly from local artists, but also some from Mexico and Asia. The two backyard patios have become one. Some plants, like lemon trees, are gone, while others, such as the cacti, are in their place.

And there is definitely a renewed sense of peace and appreciation for life radiating from Marty and Tom, which is understandable given what they’ve been through in the years since the Thomas Fire of December 2017 destroyed their then-nine-year-old home and hundreds of others in Ventura, many of them in the Ondulando and Clearpoint areas.

So when Marty — a retired Ventura County executive officer — and Tom — a veteran contractor — say of their now-rebuilt home, “It’s basically the same as it was before,” they smile, knowing what rebuilding entailed: hard work, smart pre-planning, solid family and neighborly support, a healthy supply of patience and determination, and a positive, “we will get through this” attitude.

“Nothing survived”

On the night of Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, Tom was in a deep sleep and Marty was on her iPad when the Thomas Fire began advancing westward from Santa Paula. The fire’s size and scope quickly got their attention although, says Tom, “we figured it wouldn’t be here, if at all, until the next morning, because usually the wind currents go north toward Ojai. But these winds were coming from the northeast, gusting to 70 miles an hour, and the fire was soon upon us.”

They grabbed all the important papers and photos they could and fled with Akeelah, spending the rest of the night at a friend’s house.

“Our house burned down around 4 a.m.,” says Marty, “from the top down.” Others in the neighborhood also went up in flames despite their tile roofs and stucco exteriors, says Tom, “because embers as big as your hand were carried by the winds under the eaves into the vents, meaning that the homes burned from the inside out.”

The blaze “jumped all over the place,” burning pockets of homes, skipping some and burning others. In less than a day, “all the homes here were gone,” Marty says quietly. “Nothing on the cul de sacs survived.”

Altogether, the Thomas Fire destroyed some 750 homes in Ventura County, including more than 500 in the city of Ventura, and damaged nearly 300 others, Cal Fire reported, adding that “more than 90% had fire-resistant roof protection.”

Bright colors and tastefully artistic elements can be found everywhere…even in the stylish dining room settings.

“We’re still good”

With the fire having wrought its damage barely a week after Thanksgiving and a few weeks before Christmas, the emotional blow was more severe to many of those affected than the physical effects of losing their homes and belongings. But Marty and Tom found solace and support from a variety of sources.

“We had just bought a motorhome, thinking we’d travel the country,” smiles Marty. “It became our new home, at least for a while.”

They drove their motorhome to the residence of one of their adult children, and upon arriving were greeted by their eight grandchildren bearing a special gift: a small Christmas tree adorned on top not by a star or angel, but a small wooden dog with the name “Akeelah.”

“And soon there were 15 people inside the motorhome for a family get-together,” laughs Marty. “And we said, ‘We’re still good.’ Because you realize that what brings you joy are family, friends and community.”

In less than three weeks, through word of mouth, they had located a totally furnished rental home in Camarillo, “with the nicest landlords you could hope for,” says Marty. The Robinsons moved in on Dec. 22, and a few days later Marty prepared Christmas dinner for 18. 

“We usually have Sunday dinner for anywhere from 12 to 22 anyway,” she says, “so it made sense to maintain the tradition. And I needed to cook.”

She and Tom took advantage of special pricing offered to fire victims by Macy’s, Bed Bath & Beyond and others to restock lost items; perused the Internet (especially Facebook and eBay) for good deals; and made regular trips to Costco for supplies and more.

“We’d be pushing our cart full of food and toasters and clothes,” smiles Tom, “and we’d see other folks with the same items in their carts. We’d strike up a conversation and find real camaraderie, because they’d been through what we had.”

As a result, he continues, “We pulled through this ordeal stronger than we were before, because we realized, ‘We’re all in this together.’ There’s a saying that goes, ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional,’ and it really is true.”

Akeelah is the Robinsons’ beloved beauty of a pit bull mix.

“We make a great team”

Two other factors played a crucial role in Marty and Tom’s rebuild. One was the good fortune of having an architect, Kevin Miller of Ocean View Design, who kept good records.

“On Friday after the fire,” says Marty, “we got a call from Kevin, asking if we were interested in having an electronic copy of the original plans. Yes!”

That made the process much simpler and less costly. “Some architects were charging astronomical prices to those who wanted to rebuild,” says Tom, “but we already had our plans. And where we needed to, we could update in compliance with building code changes that had occurred in the previous eight years. And that’s a good lesson for anyone: Look at your home insurance to see if you’re covered for any changes in code and law.”

“We were also fortunate,” adds Marty, “that we had increased our insurance before the fire came. And we had people we knew, professionally and personally, who looked out for us.”

Which leads to the second plus-factor: practical experience.

“In some ways,” says Marty, “we were the two best people for something like this to happen to, because I worked in county government for many years and have dealt with bureaucracy. And Tom’s been in construction and contracting for many years, so we knew the lay of the land better than others might.”

Smiling, she adds, “We make a great team for getting stuff together.”

Ventura artist Susan Cook created this large oil mural depicting the Robinsons’ grandchildren at play.

Supporting local artists

As a result, the actual rebuilding process went “very smoothly,” the Robinsons say, except for reconnecting gas service which took longer than expected. It helped that the foundation slab, “which still exceeded the standard,” was still intact and that the outline of where walls had been was, though charred, still visible, “which simplified things for the work crew,” says Marty. “

In January 2019 — 13 months after the fire — the Robinsons returned to their rebuilt 3,400 square-foot, three-bedroom, 3 1/2-bath home that offers a stylish but comfortable interior that incorporates the easygoing mood of the community and the owners. 

“We were fortunate in that we didn’t have to deal with devastation and decision-making like some re-builders did,” says Marty. “We were able to find and reorder all of what we’d had in the kitchen, for example.”

And, where necessary, they could incorporate each other’s artistic talents. Marty, as part of her work with the Glass Art Collective in Westlake Village, has created a fused glass window to be installed in the garage. For the master bathroom, Tom built the stained concrete shower with tile inlays and a tub with reading light. And their son, Tom N. Robinson, contributed colorful yet calming photographs set on metal, portraying tranquil scenes of beaches, bays and bridges.

In addition, work by many local artists is prominently displayed in every room.

“Generally,” says Marty, “we collect what moves us, as well as works of friends and family, and what we find on our travels. For instance, before the fire I had a large painting of a lady on an elephant, the graduate project of my friend Marie Kennedy. That, along with a large papier mâché giraffe, made by very talented artists from Mexico, became the art for the kids’ room. After the fire, we made an effort to focus on local artists.”

Among them is contemporary fine artist Susan Cook of Ventura, who created the large oil mural of the Robinsons’ grandchildren at play that graces the entry hall; a second grandkids’ painting for the master bedroom; and a playful portrait of goats, dubbed “Rookie Fire Prevention Officers,” hanging in the family room.

Also present are sculptures in various media by Maggie Kildee and Kathy Waggoner of Camarillo, and the late John Jagger of the Central Coast, as well as paintings by Ventura’s Hiroko Yoshimoto and Saticoy’s Susan Petty. From Asia by way of Oxnard is a Xian warrior statue outside the dining room glass door, while back inside, from Bali by way of Hawaii, is a striking (and fitting) wood sculpture of rising phoenixes.

And throughout the house are homages to Mexico, long one of the Robinsons’ favorite travel destinations. Alebrijes, brightly colored folk art sculptures of fantasy/spirit animals, are found in several rooms; a display of “antique” sombreros hangs in the entryway; and an engaging, wildly colorful “senorita skeleton” emerges from a corner off the hallway each October to join the “Día de los Muertos” festivities.

“Due to the love and generosity of family and friends,” says Marty, “our home is again filled with the beauty of Mexican handcrafts and art. And replacing what we lost with art from so many places has been a cool, fun thing to do.”

A cactus in bloom graces the garden, which definitively reflects the home’s pueblo-style architecture and design.

“A new spirit”

Outside, Tom — whose sculptures and drawings, sadly, were lost in the fire — did the stained concrete of the driveway, the stained wood doors of the three-car garage and the brick-and-tile walkways leading to the front door. He and Marty were involved in landscaping, which includes potted cacti and other drought-tolerant plants as well as vegetables and fruit trees.

In back, the now-united patio — done in terracotta oblong pavers with glazed Mexican tile insets — bends around the kitchen/living room sector and overlooks the Ondulando and Clearpoint neighborhoods beyond and the slope below where, amazingly, several trees (including jacaranda, pepper and avocado) survived the fire, unlike most of the homes now being (or having been) rebuilt. The stairs and railing along the slope, as well as the patio awning supports, are made of sculpted wood from Colorado.

The patio also hosts an array of outdoor furniture to provide more than ample space for entertaining. Recent gatherings included the post-event reception for the “Rise From the Ashes” home tour that spotlighted homes rebuilt after being destroyed by the fire.

The tour raised funds for the Friends of the Ventura Library Foundation’s efforts to provide bookmobile services to the community. “Libraries had to be supported during the pandemic,” says Marty, a foundation board member, “because they are so vital to the life of the community.”

Nearly four years after the rebuild was completed, the Robinsons find that moving back is not without its challenges, which can be more emotional than physical. The construction crews and equipment that still abound in the neighborhood, working on replacing more homes, are daily reminders of that.

“The stories are never-ending from the people who were affected,” says Marty. “How they left, how they rebuilt and why, the challenges they faced. Some people just left altogether. For one couple, the wife still can’t come back to look at her place; it’s too emotional, so they’re selling. The whole range of human responses is amazing. Because something like this scars your soul as well as your home.”

At the same time, though, they are embracing what Tom calls “a new spirit in the neighborhood. Below us is a family with teen daughters who play music and have parties, but not too loud. And across the street, a very nice younger family has moved in. It’s a nice complement to the older folks who have been living here, and it’s like a rebirth of the house and the neighborhood.”

“We are very grateful,” adds Marty with a smile, eyeing her sleeping beauty of a pit bull mix, “to have come through this as well as we have.”