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Ravaged by fireplace, Ventura tries finding Christmas spirit and a way forward

Freddie Contarino and her husband took an afternoon drive into downtown Ventura, where they had lunch, caught a matinee and tried to reclaim a sense of normalcy.

It wasn’t easy. The often busy street life and restaurants were muted by the fires that cast a pall over everything.

“The restaurants were empty,” Contarino, 77, said.

The fire swept through several neighborhoods in the heart of Ventura, destroying hundreds of homes and forcing thousands to evacuate.

Nine days later, the fire has moved to the north and is less of a threat to the city of Ventura.

That leaves residents and city officials beginning to talk about recovery — and trying to get back to something that can be called normal.

This week, the post office began delivering mail to some parts of the city. Utilities crews continued repairing damaged pole lines while firefighters assessed fire damages to neighborhoods.

In the downtown area, businesses along Main Street reopened, hoping to still draw in Christmas shoppers.

“The wildfire has been hard on the local economy,” said Angela Rosales, owner of Very Ventura, a small gift store. “For some of us, having to close for days was a big deal.”

Her mother, Goya Rosales, 70, said: “Some people are trying to get into the Christmas spirit.”

Inside Heavenly Couture, a clothing store, the scent from the charred hillsides lingered.

Standing behind the glass counter, 18-year-old Antonella Almeida said she didn’t know how she felt.

“It’s nice to see people walking around, but it’s just sad that so many people lost their homes,” she said.

As she rang up items her colleague, Joleen Zuniga, 26, had purchased, she said the store had opened on Sunday, but few people were coming in to buy things.

“This is suppose to be our busiest time of the year,” Almeida said.

“Especially since this is December,” Zuniga added. “And we already lost a whole week.”

Among the few shoppers wandering along Main Street were firefighters from out of state who were on break from battling the Thomas fire.

Wearing fire department T-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes, they popped into stores and restaurants that had opened after being closed, in some cases, for nearly a week.

“We cannot express enough how grateful we are for them,” Rosales said. “They’re giving back to the community.”

Ivor Davis, 79, a longtime resident, said that Ventura was steadily clawing back.

“This is a very thriving town, it’s picking up a bit,” he said. “I was here yesterday and the day before and it was like a ghost town.”

Among the few businesses that had opened last weekend was Robert Bedard’s music store, Guitar 48.

At least one customer had returned to pick up a guitar he had taken in for repairs Sunday afternoon.

Bedard said he used his business as temporary shelter for his family while the massive fire swept through the city. He said the store had power, internet and a working phone.

“We were a lot more comfortable here and we got to keep an eye on downtown because it was pretty much abandoned,” he said.

Bedard said they hauled food and blankets into the store. They watched the television news coverage of the fire and called family.

“This was like mission control,” he said.

Residents said what makes moving forward difficult is not just the devastation that the fire left but the fact that everyone knows someone who was directly harmed by the fire.

“In Ventura there’s one degree of separation,” Rosales said. “Many of us have friends or a friend that were impacted by the fire.”

At the Ventura County Museum on a Monday evening, close to 60 merchants sat at round tables as they spoke about what role they could play in helping the city recover.

One woman urged everyone to use the social media hashtag #VenturaStrong.

“Share it, share it, share it,” she said as people nodded.

Before the wildfire came, several of the merchants were preparing to participate in what they hoped would be an annual holiday festival. The Holidays at the Plaza included an outdoor movie pajama party, marketplace and disco dance events.

Not far away from the museum, at Plaza Park, past a Moreton Bay fig that had been planted in 1874, stood a stand of Christmas trees, left abandoned and surrounded by wooden fences.

Rosales said they were going to decorate the Christmas trees, but then the fire changed everything.

ruben.vives@latimes.com

For more Southern California news, follow @latvives on Twitter.

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