Massive Wildfires Almost Destroyed This Small Town. Now Music Brings The Community Together.

“We can tell the story of the miracle of Ojai, which is that the town didn’t burn.”

Police and fire crews watch as the Thomas Fire burns a hillside in Ojai, California, on Dec. 7, 2017. Photo by Kyle Grillot/AFP/Getty Images.

On Dec. 4, 2017, Jamie Bennett was sitting at home in his living room recovering from the flu. It was a blustery Monday night in the picturesque valley of Ojai, California — some 20 miles east of the coastal town of Ventura — and the winds were rattling the windows of his home.


Around 8 p.m., the phone rang.

Bennett’s wife answered. It was a neighbor calling with alarming news: A fire had started a few miles away, near the campus of Thomas Aquinas College. From a nearby hillside, the neighbor had observed threatening, pulsing orange flames on the horizon. Given the ferocity and direction of the winds that night, it was clear the fire could quickly become an imminent threat to the Bennetts’ lives and property.

The couple packed up picture albums and small items that were dear to them and took a video of the contents of their house as a record for an insurance claim should their home burn.

“It’s just stuff,” they said to each other as they stood in their driveway, looking back at their home for what they thought could be the last time.

Fueled by high winds, the Thomas Fire would go on to become the largest wildfire ever recorded in California, burning 273,400 acres across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

Firefighters keep watch while fire and smoke head toward their area from the Thomas Fire on Dec. 9, 2017. Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images.

On that night, the fire gobbled up hundreds of homes.

Before it was finally contained in late December, it also would take the life of San Diego fire engineer Corey Iverson. Along with several other wine country fires in 2017, it was part of one of the most destructive fire seasons the state has ever seen; California fires burned a total of 10,000 homes and killed more than 40 people.

The Bennetts were among the lucky ones that night.

Although the fire burned down neighboring homes and crept onto their property, charring their landscaping, their home was spared.

The Libbey Bowl in Ojai. Photo courtesy of the Ojai Music Festival.

Paradise (almost) lost

If you look at a map of the Thomas Fire’s wrath, you’ll find it resembles a doughnut, with the small town of Ojai sitting at its center like a green, unburned hole. Bennett and other residents of Ojai praise the work of dedicated firefighters from across California and the western United States for saving their town, speaking of it as a miracle.

Bennett makes his home in the upper Ojai Valley because he is the president of the Ojai Music Festival, an annual summer classical music festival recognized nationally for its innovative programming, artistic excellence, and idyllic setting.

Igor Stravinsky conducting in Ojai in 1962. Photo courtesy of the Ojai Music Festival.

Since its founding in 1947, the Ojai Music Festival has been a special gathering place for lovers of new, classical, and experimental art and music. Past years’ music directors include classical superstars Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Pierre Boulez. Contemporary composers and musicians have also curated the show, including experimental opera composer John C. Adams, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, theater and opera director Peter Sellars, and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer.

Each year, the Ojai festival produces a packed schedule of enticing concerts, many of which are performed at the intimate Libbey Bowl, a 973-seat open-air venue nestled in the heart of downtown Ojai.

Redfishbluefish performs at Meditation Mount in Ojai. Photo courtesy of the Ojai Music Festival.

With a population of under 8,000, Ojai is a small town that often swells in size thanks to tourists who come to taste the region’s notable wines and relax at its spas and hotels. More often than not, the air in Ojai is filled with the scent of orange blossoms, a natural perfume that wafts through the Libbey Bowl with the summer breeze.

“Ojai is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, in my view,” Ojai Music Festival’s artistic director Thomas Morris says. “There is this very gorgeous valley that smells of orange blossoms and is very un-commercial. During an evening concert, when the moon comes out — well, ‘magic’ is an understatement.”

But the fires almost put an end to the region’s peaceful beauty.

The Thomas Fire burns in the Los Padres National Forest on Dec. 8, 2017. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

The town that didn’t burn

In the weeks following its outbreak, the gentle scent of orange blossoms was replaced by toxic, ash-filled air that reeked of burning petroleum seeping up from the ground nearby. Throughout December, a holiday season that typically fills the town with tourists, hotels were shuttered, and restaurants and shops sat empty.

Bennett recalls the eerie sensation of a ghost town.

For weeks he wore a paper mask, even inside his office. “I went to Bonnie Lou’s one Saturday — it’s a popular breakfast/luncheonette kind of place — the only place open in town that day. There were more waitresses than there were patrons. You just knew this was going to have a big economic impact on our town.”

That is one reason Bennett is excited for the 2018 music festival — which kicks off June 7 and runs through June 10 — and this year includes a free community concert. In recognition of what the community has been through, the concert will feature the JACK Quartet performing John Luther Adams’ “Everything That Rises.” Adams is known for composing works inspired by nature. He lived in Alaska for decades and even worked in environmental protection in the 1970s.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We can tell the story of the miracle of Ojai, which is that the town didn’t burn.[/quote]

“The June 8 concert is our gift to the community, to acknowledge the pain and have a concert that is creatively appropriate for a community that is arising out of the ashes,” Bennett says. “With the festival, we can give back to our community by doing what we do, which is inviting people from outside of Ojai to come and visit and spend money and go to hotels and shops. We can tell the story of the miracle of Ojai, which is that the town didn’t burn. And we can remind people that Ojai is still a beautiful, hospitable, wonderful place.”

An Ojai Music Festival 2015 community event. Photo courtesy of the Ojai Music Festival.

Morris is, as always, looking forward to a magical few days of music-making in a gem of a florid, fragrant town. The festival’s programming is curated each year by a visiting music director; for 2018, it’s the charismatic violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja.

Morris says Kopatchinskaja is more than a violinist: “She’s a creative force. She has devised a series of what she calls ‘staged concerts,’ two of which we are doing at Ojai. She’s just done her first film about music. She’s a deep, deep thinker about the state of music. She is very rooted in today and tomorrow. And she is just a mesmerizing personality and musician. I refer to her as a force of nature. She envelopes you. And she’s articulate, passionate.”

Musicians perform at the Libbey Gazebo. Photo by Timothy Norris.

The rejuvenation

Like the fury of the fires and the quietness that followed, classical music often reflects the forces of nature.

“This year, you’ll hear pieces by [Guillaume de] Machaut and a Beethoven violin concerto. There is Stravinsky’s ‘L’Histoire du soldat,’ which is 100 years old this year.” Morris says. “And then there’s some really crazy new stuff. The Ojai Festival is full of excitement and surprise and challenge and stimulation. You just don’t know what you’re going to get, but you know it’ll be all of those things.”

The region’s scars from the fires have begun to heal, too, Morris says of his recent visit to Ojai.

“It’ll be green ... so green,” he says. “Mother nature is quite extraordinary, and so the rejuvenation of the natural habitat is already starting big time.”

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