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Bill Macfadyen: In Santa Barbara County, Thomas Fire’s Toll More Inconvenience Than Destruction

NoozWeek’s Top 5 changes to narrative for wrapup of monster wildfire that could become California’s largest ever

The Thomas Fire fills the sky east of Gibraltar Road as it burns out of Montecito on Dec. 16. Click to view larger
The Thomas Fire fills the sky east of Gibraltar Road as it burns out of Montecito on Dec. 16. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Well, that passed.

The Thomas Fire — the second largest wildfire in California’s recorded history — has at last been tamed.

It’s not out. Containment of the now 272,600-acre fire reached 65 percent as of Dec. 21 but it’s not expected to be fully corralled until Jan. 7. Firefighters have redirected the blaze into the backcountry and believe they have a good handle on remaining hot spots closer to us.

Thousands of firefighters have been released from a contingent that, at its peak, totaled almost 9,000 — a staggering number when you consider the logistics alone.

Relatively speaking, Santa Barbara County came through remarkably unscathed. Although towering flames raged across the front slopes of the Santa Ynez Mountains, terrifyingly close to Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito and Santa Barbara, just 16 homes were lost and there were no serious injuries.

Tragically, the same cannot be said for Ventura County, where the fire ignited Dec. 4 near Santa Paula. More than 1,000 houses were destroyed, some 800 in Ventura alone, and two people were killed: a Santa Paula woman fleeing the flames that first night and San Diego County firefighter Cory Iverson, a 32-year-old CalFire engineer who died in the line of duty Dec. 14 near Fillmore.

The body of Iverson, a husband and father of two, was taken home Dec. 17 in a solemn procession of fire trucks and helicopters. A memorial service will be held Dec. 23 in San Diego. R.I.P.

Effects of the Thomas Fire will be felt for weeks, if not months, to come.

Days before the wildfire stormed out of Ventura County, the South Coast was engulfed by choking smoke and heavy ash that fell like never-ending snow. A month ago, who could have predicted that the hottest fashion accessory of the year would be an N95 particulate mask? They were so trendy that even smokers were wearing them, although I’m not sure why.

The alarming air quality was bad enough to cancel the last week of school — throughout much of the county, actually — and the place emptied out. Local business activity cratered, people scattered like vagabonds and Christmas vacations were moved up. You’re welcome, Mammoth.

And then, on Dec. 10, authorities dropped the Pulaski. Upward of 30,000 residents were ordered out of their homes, immediately, in a sweeping 16-mile-long zone between the Ventura County line and Santa Barbara’s Mission Canyon.

I trust that controversial decision will get the thorough and honest evaluation it deserves, but it unquestionably aided firefighters on Dec. 16, by far the most harrowing day of the onslaught. After marching steadily west across Toro and Romero canyons, the firestorm exploded through San Ysidro Canyon at daybreak, propelled by erratic 65 mph wind gusts.

The now-barren Montecito Peak, in a photo taken a couple of hours after the Thomas Fire swept it clean Dec. 16. Click to view larger
The now-barren Montecito Peak, in a photo taken a couple of hours after the Thomas Fire swept it clean Dec. 16. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo via Instagram)

Flames went every which way as they leaped up and down the mountainside. From the roof of my house, I watched them chew through the ancient, tinder-dry chaparral on Montecito Peak directly above me. In less than a half-hour, the entire front face was denuded, all the way to its 3,200-foot summit.

Throughout the Montecito foothills, it seemed as if strike teams were staged at every house. On some streets, that was literally true. Without the distraction of civilians, firefighters were able to concentrate their full attention on structure protection and beating back the flames.

All things considered? They kicked its ass. And then, in many cases, they carefully tidied up behind themselves before mounting up and moving west.

By midafternoon, the very worst of the threat had passed as the eastern flank of the blaze high-tailed it over the ridgeline and into the backcountry and the west front mostly complied with efforts to channel it into the footprints of the more recent Gibraltar and Rey fires where fuel wasn’t so plentiful.

Still, mandatory evacuations were extended to Highway 154 as unstable weather conditions stoked fears of a repeat of the 2008 Tea and 2009 Jesusita fires. Mercifully, nothing much happened after that, but now would be a good time to start praying that this winter’s desperately needed rain does not all come at once.

For the next nearly five days, Montecito, my only frame of reference, was in a truly surreal state of semi-martial law. I didn’t know the California Highway Patrol even owned so many vehicles.

The morning of Dec. 20, at least one CHP unit, and often more, was parked in just about every driveway, private lane and intersection along Hot Springs and Olive Mill roads between Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and Coast Village Road, a mile away. I counted 22 of them, with almost a dozen more at intersections along Coast Village Road and above Montecito Country Mart.

Of course, five California National Guard humvees also were deployed along Salinas Street on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside, as they were elsewhere in the city.

It’s sweet that Gov. Jerry Brown loves Montecito so much, but I’m curious if other wildfire zones have ever gotten this much public private security. What say you, Lake County?

The most confusing aspect of the mandatory evacuation was its elasticity, however. At one point, vehicles on East Valley Road were prohibited from going down to nearby Coast Village Road, which had been reopened, and instead were directed to take the circuitous and still-closed Highway 192 up the mountain and into what was then said to be an active and dangerous fire zone in Sycamore Canyon.

My favorite incident was a neighbor being denied entry to check on the family cats after his abrupt departure nine days before. Two hours later, his gardeners were on the job as if nothing had happened. At least they kept the leaf blowers holstered.

You can be sure that all angles of the Thomas Fire — including official emergency communications and directions to the public — will be analyzed and studied well into the future by fire, emergency management and public safety professionals, as well as local agencies and officials. The blaze may yet grow another 700 acres to become the state’s largest wildfire ever, and it promises a treasure trove of important data and details. The first order of business will be determining the cause.

Noozhawk is looking forward to that examination, and our news staff already has begun compiling a spreadsheet of potential story ideas and avenues of review to pursue.

As with any complex endeavor, unforeseen variables and weaknesses will always emerge. No battle plan is flawless, and this one was no exception.

But the takeaway I will remember about the Thomas Fire, at least here in Santa Barbara County, is how well prepared, trained and resourced firefighters were for nearly every one of those variables, weaknesses and flaws.

This fire had the opportunity to become another Santa Rosa. The fact that it did not is a testament to the valor, determination and skill of the men and women fighting it, and those plotting that response.

Thank you.

Meanwhile, I remain in awe of the efforts of Team Noozhawk. After more than two weeks of working nearly around the clock, executive editor Tom Bolton, managing editor Giana Magnoli, North County editor Janene Scully, staff writers Brooke Holland and Josh Molina, and contributing writer Ray Ford continue to provide accurate, consistent, thorough and essential reporting on the wildfire. Ray, Peter Hartmann of the Urban Hikers, Ryan Cullom and Zack Warburg are capturing top-notch visuals.

They may smell of smoke for the next year, but I’m sure grateful for their unflagging energy and dedication.

I also very much appreciate all of the thanks and encouragement I’ve heard from readers about Noozhawk’s coverage, as well as the breaking news text alert signups, the Hawks Club memberships and the new advertisers we’ve picked up in the last 17 days.

Noozhawk’s traffic continued its torrid pace. According to our Google Analytics, there were 266,545 of you reading us last week and the Top 5 stories were all fire related, as were eight of the Top 10 and 31 out of the Top 50.

This column — which is my opinion column, in case you haven’t figured that out by now — feels as if it’s already gone on as long as the mandatory evacuation. So I’m just going to list the Top 10 headlines of the past week and call it a day.

Merry Christmas!

1. Fanned by Gusty Downslope Winds, Thomas Fire Roars to the West

We’re No. 2, but we’ve got a good shot at becoming No. 1. (CalFire map)
We’re No. 2, but we’ve got a good shot at becoming No. 1. (CalFire map)

2. A Guide to Thomas Fire Maps

Park Hill Lane in Montecito bore the brunt of the Thomas Fire’s incursion into the Montecito foothills. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)
Park Hill Lane in Montecito bore the brunt of the Thomas Fire’s incursion into the Montecito foothills. (Zack Warburg / Noozhawk photo)

3. A Day After Huge Firestorm, Crews Seem Optimistic About Containing Thomas Fire

FIrefighters are silhouetted against the Thomas Fire at Parma Park above Santa Barbara the night of Dec. 16. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)
FIrefighters are silhouetted against the Thomas Fire at Parma Park above Santa Barbara the night of Dec. 16. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

4. Volatile Winds Whip Thomas Fire Into Burning Frenzy, Putting Firefighters to a Severe Test

5. Santa Barbara County Thomas Fire Evacuation Zone Updates

6. Thomas Fire Evacuation Orders, Warnings Reduced in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara

7. Caltrans Repaves Section of Highway 101 Near Goleta After Tanker-Truck Crash, Gasoline Spill

8. ‘Wind Event’ Expected Saturday May Prove Pivotal in Battle to Stop Thomas Fire

9. 2 People Killed, 4 Injured in Suspected DUI Crash on Highway 154 Near Los Olivos

10. Crews Battling Thomas Fire Gearing Up for Wednesday ‘Wind Event’

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Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Motorcyclist Killed in Collision with SUV on Foothill Road in Carpinteria.

                                                                 •        •        •

Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

The comparison may be one of pine trees to chaparral, but Deschutes County, Ore., may have a replicable strategy to minimize our risk: Yes, Something Can Be Done About Wildfires.

                                                                 •        •        •

Watch It

Happy Christmas to all ... of the voices in this thread. Language warning.

(Scheiffer Bates video)

                                                                 •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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