ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now to Southern California, where the massive Thomas wildfire is more than 90 percent contained. People who evacuated are now returning to see what's left of their homes and neighborhoods. Stephanie O'Neill reports from the Upper Ojai Valley, where about a quarter of homes were destroyed.
STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Here in the parking lot of the Stagecoach Station General Store, a posse of residents is operating a makeshift relief center for victims of what is now California's largest wildfire on record. Piles of donated clothing sit next to bales of free hay for livestock. A portable storage bins filled with donated toys stands next to one offering rakes, shovels, chainsaws and shop vacs.
TREVOR QUIRK: Every single thing you see in this parking lot has been donated.
O'NEILL: Trevor Quirk is helping lead the all-volunteer operation that's supporting residents who've lost all they owned in the massive wildfire that exploded to life in the surrounding hills December 4.
QUIRK: There's stuff that's coming in from Louisiana. There was a truckload of ladies that drove here from Colorado today. They packed in their truck and brought in supplies.
O'NEILL: One of the destroyed homes belongs to Diana Luboff, a nursery school teacher and lavender farmer. She and her family escaped from their home of 30 years with just a few photos, five cats and two pet pythons. The rest, she says, is gone.
DIANA LUBOFF: We've been up going through the debris in our house. Really, it's debris. It's rubble. This is the second time we've done it. I was up here two days ago, and I cried for five straight hours because nothing's salvageable, really.
O'NEILL: As the fire approached, artist Peter Swart began alerting neighbors and then rescued his friend's two large dogs before escaping the flames that took his rented home and everything he owned. None of it, he says, was insured.
PETER SWART: It's taken me over a week to actually come here and look at what I lost.
O'NEILL: Including 35 years of his paintings, his coin collection and his 1961 MG he was restoring. On this particular afternoon, he's using a piece of mesh framed in plywood that he picked up for free from the relief center to sift through the ash. He's hoping to find the wedding bands that belonged to his now-deceased parents.
SWART: It's kind of a sentimental piece that I'd like to find, but I doubt with the heat of this fire. It just melted everything down. Glass, aluminum - everything's melted down.
O'NEILL: Still he, like others here, says he's grateful to live in the Upper Ojai, where the volunteer fire relief station has brought a sort of community center to a community that's never really had a center.
SWART: Just everyone opening up, giving. And it's there, you know? Just people give. And don't even have to ask. There was so much given.
BRONDA COLEGROVE: I mean, this is not going to be the same.
O'NEILL: Bronda Colegrove's home survived, but she nevertheless spends a portion of these post-fire days at the relief center, visiting with neighbors she'd never met in 30 years living here. The fire, she says, is transforming the social fabric.
COLEGROVE: 'Cause people know each other, a lot of people that I didn't know before. And everybody is - it's just - it's more like a village, you know, than it was, you know, just a store here.
O'NEILL: And it's that community around the fire relief center here in the parking lot of the Stagecoach Station General Store that's convinced lavender farmers Diana Luboff and husband Tony to rebuild their home here in the Upper Ohio Valley.
LUBOFF: And I think it's going to be very different. As we rebuild, we're going to do it together. And my first response was I didn't want to live here ever again. But I love it here so much. I can't imagine living anywhere else.
O'NEILL: This time, Luboff says, instead of wood she'll rebuild using concrete and steel. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Ojai, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.