On December 30 and January 1, 2017 I drove from Los Angeles up to Ventura county to witness some of the destruction from the Thomas fire and to try and hear some of the stories of those who've fought and lived through it this epic disaster, which as of December 29, 2017 has consumed 281,893 acres of land, incinerating nearly everything in its path, flora, fauna, and including well over a thousand buildings. Two firefighters were killed. The Santa Ana winds were a huge contributing factor over the first few weeks, as is the fact that we haven't had any rain yet this winter. The epic rains we had in the winter of early 2017 ironically contributed as well to more dense fuel. The Wiki about the fire is quite useful for more detail. You can read it here.
Other than my general fears for people in harm's way, their property and the destruction of beautiful land, habitat and animals, I was also particularly worried about the condor sanctuary in Los Padres National Forest as I saw the fire expanding daily in the news. The fire reached the sanctuary, and the scientists who run that facility are currently trying to track down the surviving birds. The California condor is nearly extinct, despite efforts to keep them going. Between habitat loss and poisoning from lead bullets and other toxins in food they eat, their survival is precarious to say the least. Here's an article about the sanctuary's efforts after the fire hit their area.
On my drive up to Ojai and beyond I started seeing the scorched hills in Ventura, many parts of which were ravaged by this blaze. I drove up to Foothill Road to see how those neighborhoods were affected as I could see the scored hills from the 101. There is a lot of devastation up there. Many houses were reduced to ash with only the remains of cars, metal appliances, filing cabinets and chimneys identifiable in many cases. It is also amazing that so many homes were spared, many next to ones that burned. Here are some pictures from that neighborhood.
Next I drove north and up the 33 towards Ojai. If you look at a map of how the fire burned around Ojai and to the south Oak View and Casistas Springs, it will add perspective to the astounding job these firemen did in protecting these communities. Check here to see the burn area. Signs along the way thank the firefighters and other first responders.
I spoke to some firefighters I met along the way, past Ojai in Los Padres National Forest where they were stationed. They were from Arizona. I asked what they were doing there and the captian said "watching the black..." He explained that meant watching the burned out bits they could see and looking for flare-ups. They'd missed the holidays with their families and were just doing their jobs, saving others. He said they were structural firefighters, but on this assignment were climbing through dense forest trying to do what they could to limit the frantic march of this blaze. The captain said "I'm getting a little old for this shit..." Here's a pic of them and their truck.
Their truck bore a tribute to the 19 City of Prescott firefighters who died fighting a fire in Arizona in 2013. See the sticker on the bottom of the picture that follows.
As I drove further up the 33 I saw the former site of the Wheeler Springs post office, at one time hailed as the smallest post office in the United States. It was next to a restaurant that's been closed a while. Both are gone now. Below is a picture of the post office from 2015 and what the site looks like now and the burned restaurant next door.
Los Padres National Forest was ravaged by the Thomas fire. See the pictures below taken from or near the 33.
I also wanted to see how Matilija Creek Road fared. I've been up there to hike before and it was hit pretty badly, though many houses survived. Towards the end of the road, I talked with Doss and Steve Mucci, who stayed at their home through the mandatory evacuation. They told the firemen they'd been preparing for this since 1985, and largely credit the citrus orchard around their home for saving their house. I bought some tangerines from them, from which she had just washed the ashes. Others along that road weren't as lucky. See the pics below.
My friend, Shelly Burke, who lives in Ojai took me to upper Ojai, near where the fire is said to have started, and where approximately 100 homes were lost. She's been hosting a family she didn't even know previously but who lost everything in the blaze. Their names are Josh and Meghan Belgum, and they and their two kids barely made it out of the fire. They didn't have time to take all their animals, the mules were cut loose and they did their best to get the roosters and hens to get out of harm's way. Shelly told me the birds came back (except for one that wouldn't leave) as did the mules, all of who miraculously survived.
Here are some pics of their former home.
One hen, who was sitting on her nest which had about 10 eggs in it, wouldn't leave her eggs. They found her barely recognizable remains in exactly that spot when they went back. See the picture below.
Here is what's left of the Belgum's computer.
Krista Belgum, Josh's sister in law , started a gofundme site to help the Belgums get through the difficult period of surviving while they wait for insurance, which I understand has been difficult, to be sorted out.
The Belgums are just one of very many families who lost everything in the Thomas fire, and if you're at all motivated to help there are many groups trying to raise funds to assist those affected. The news cycles may have moved on, but the horror for those touched by this fire will not end for a long long time.
This has been the largest fire in California since records have been kept, and while I want to believe it's not the new normal, after Sonoma just a few months ago and the massive fires that scarred the west from British Columbia to southern California in the last year it's difficult to be optimistic.