Shelter life wears on California evacuees awaiting word on homes

By Alex Dobuzinskis

By Alex Dobuzinskis

VENTURA, Calif. (Reuters) - California wildfire evacuee Richard Seabold once spent a month in the South Pole, so he knows something about surviving in tough conditions.

Life in an emergency shelter, however, has been particularly hard, the 83-year-old said on Friday as he gripped a Styrofoam cup of coffee and sat next to his cot in a warehouse in the coastal city of Ventura.

"I used to live and work at the South Pole, and it was much nicer than here," the military veteran said with a smile, wearing a cap that read "Navy Support Force Antarctica."

Seabold and his 91-year-old wife, Yvonne, are among more than 200 people staying at the shelter at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. They were forced to evacuate on Monday by the Thomas Fire, which has burned more than 141,000 acres (57,000 hectares) in Ventura County, making it the most destructive blaze, by far, among the six major fires in Southern California this week.

The food at the shelter is plentiful, but not of great quality, Seabold said. And the temperature gets a bit chilly, he added, although his wife pointed out that people keep piling blankets on the couple's two cots.

The worst thing, Seabold said, was not the shelter itself, but waiting to know the fate of his two-bedroom house.

"I don't know if I have a home," Seabold said. "I don't know if it's habitable."

Having evacuated for the first time in decades living in Ventura, Seabold is hopeful the house is still standing.

But, unlike some others at the shelter who might rush home at the first opportunity, Seabold said he does not want to go home until he knows the couple's electricity, gas and telephone line are all operational.

Evacuation orders for large parts of Ventura were lifted late on Friday.

A BIGGER, FASTER FIRE

While the shelter has a former denizen of the South Pole, it also received a visitor from the North Pole on Wednesday, when Santa Claus stopped in, said Cindy Huge, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross, which runs the center.

The staff at the shelter is trying to make life as normal as possible for people whose lives have been upended right before the winter holidays.

It has Internet service, tables with toys and nurses on hand. A mariachi group came in to play Christmas music, while an NFL player dropped by to donate sweatshirts and pants.

Families play cards, while evacuees of all ages stretch out on rows of cots in the metal warehouse, large fans spinning overhead. A mobile communications station brings television news coverage of fires that have forced 200,000 Southern Californians from their homes.

Behind the shelter are stables for dozens of horses that were evacuated, and next door is another room full of dogs, cats and at least one tortoise.

In that pet room, evacuee Michelle Mullin, 46, sat on the floor next to a crate that holds her German shepherd, Abraham.

Mullin, who previously worked as a nurse but is on disability, rushed out of her Ventura home with only a few prized possessions as flames raced closer. Some 15,000 homes were threatened and Mullin does not know if her home is among the 400 structures reported destroyed so far.

In the past, fires came close, but this one was different - bigger and faster.

"The way it took over, you just never see anything like that," Mullin said, showing a photo on her phone of a hill engulfed in bright orange smoke and flames.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Mary Milliken)