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Monday, December 17 , 2018, 9:00 am | Light Rain Fog/Mist 55º


Threat of Burned Hillsides Lingers in Santa Barbara County a Year After Thomas Fire Ignition

Rebuilding and recovery effort has been slow, and fire's legacy in Santa Barbara County is the ongoing risk of debris flows


Last year's Thomas Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Ventura County, and the fire’s march west burned additional buildings, prompted mass evacuations, and set the stage for the deadly Jan. 9 debris flows in Montecito.

The rebuilding and recovery effort has been slow, and the fire's legacy in Santa Barbara County is the ongoing risk of debris flows when strong winter storms hit the scorched hillsides.  

On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will re-ratify its Proclamation of Local Emergency Caused by Drought Conditions for the umpteenth time, and re-ratify the local emergency declared for the “Thomas Fire/Storm Incident,” which it does every 60 days until it is no longer needed.

Late Monday, the county released an updated debris flows risk map for communities below recent burn areas, including the Thomas Fire, Whittier Fire and Sherpa Fire. 

The 281,893-acre Thomas Fire was California’s largest on record for just eight months, until the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California, which burned 459,123 acres.

The Thomas Fire started near Santa Paula on Dec. 4, 2017, and six days later, the blaze headed across county lines. It damaged and destroyed homes in the Shepard Mesa and Gobernador Canyon areas east of Carpinteria, with no signs of stopping.

It eventually burned all the way to Montecito and into the backcountry, and the air quality was the worst ever recorded in Santa Barbara County from the smoke, according to the Public Health Department.

wildfire flames Click to view larger
A wall of flames from the Thomas Fire crosses a hillside on the east side of Highway 33 north of Ojai in the early days of the firefight.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk file photo)

Schools and businesses closed their doors, and holiday events were canceled all over the county, as Public Health teams and nonprofit partners handed out hundreds of thousands of N-95 masks.

While Ventura County lost hundreds of homes, Santa Barbara County initially red-tagged 22 homes and 20 other buildings (garages, barns, greenhouses, etc.) after Thomas Fire damage, and yellow-tagged five more.

As of last week, the Planning and Development Department records had 32 red-tagged buildings, a decrease of 10, according to the latest building and safety inspection reports, and nine were yellow-tagged.

The rebuilding process is the same for people who have property damage from the fire or debris flows, senior planner Tess Harris said. Safety inspectors red-tagged 248 structures after the debris flows and 58 of those were destroyed.

Repair and rebuild cases are expedited for those property owners, and homes are prioritized, she added.

Watching the fire come

Bob and Chris DeVries, longtime Shepard Mesa residents, saw the glow of the blaze for days before flames crested the ridge near Rincon Point.

couple on property overlooking canyon and burned hills Click to view larger
Longtime Shepard Mesa residents Bob and Chris DeVries are grateful their home survived the Thomas Fire, which they watched grow closer as it burned into Santa Barbara County. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

There were firefighters parked in their driveway, who would sometimes take the Devries up on their offers of coffee and Mountain Dew, and to use the bathroom.

Helicopters were flying through the canyons around the hilltop homes to drop water and retardant, trying to keep the blaze from continuing west, Bob DeVries said.

Their neighborhood, and ones nearby, was evacuated, allowed back in, and evacuated again as the wind-blown flames swept into Santa Barbara County.

“They shouldn’t have let us back in when they did,” Chris DeVries said.

“I thought it was done – everybody thought it was done,” Bob DeVries added.

While Bob was hosing down the property, Chris was trying to decide what to take with them when they evacuated. She gathered photographs and things for the dogs – they had four Labrador retrievers at the time (now they have two, Molly and Annie) and were dog-sitting two more for friends.

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Chris DeVries shows a photo she took on her phone of the Thomas Fire’s glow, seen from Shepard Mesa looking east toward Highway 150 on Dec. 5, 2017.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The couple evacuated with all six dogs to their friends’ Montecito house, and then had to evacuate again when the fire burned the hills there.

They watched television news coverage and saw flames burning near their home.

“As we were watching the news, I thought, ‘the house is gone,’ and reconciled myself to it, and thought this is how I would rebuild it differently,” Chris DeVries said. “It would be a miracle if any part of it was still standing.”

They stayed in touch with neighbors with calls and group text-message chains, and then they got a picture that showed their house had made it.

The fire burned through their property, scorching vegetation and half of the tree by the driveway, leaving it looking like the Batman villain Two-Face, Bob DeVries said. But the house was standing.

“The 10th is our Christmas from now on,” Bob DeVries said.

glow of wildfire seen over hills Click to view larger
Bob and Chris DeVries could see the glow of the Thomas Fire from their Shepard Mesa home as it burned in Ventura County.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

They’ve been thinking about the fire more as the anniversary arrives, and they still find soot and ash around the house, Chris DeVries said.

“We think every day how lucky we are. We dodged a bullet,” she said.

13 days of unhealthy air quality 

The Air Pollution Control District’s website traffic increased substantially during the fire, and Today’s Air Quality status page especially, said spokeswoman Lyz Hoffman.

The Thomas Fire caused 13 days of unhealthy air quality in the county, and in the year since then, air quality has been affected by wildfires throughout the state, some of them hundreds of miles away — such as the Camp Fire — she added. 

With a year-round fire season, the APCD suggests residents create “clean air rooms” with a HEPA air purifier (or a do-it-yourself version of a box fan and a HEPA filter) to effectively remove particles and improve indoor air quality if outdoor air quality is poor, she said. 

The Public Health Department has a large stock of masks on hand in case of another period of unhealthy air quality, spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz said, and it can request more as necessary. 

Southern California Edison equipment cited as ignition point of the blaze

The Thomas Fire started around 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, 2017, with two fires reported in the Santa Paula area near Thomas Aquinas College that soon merged, according to fire officials.

man looking over burned mountains Click to view larger
On Dec. 20, 2017, Santa Barbara County Fire Marshall Steve Oaks looks down at Cold Spring Canyon, which was burned in the Thomas Fire. Many trails in the area were damaged by the flames and the later floods and debris flows.  (Ray Ford / Noozhawk file photo)

As the fire burned out of control in Santa Paula, there was a huge blackout when flames damaged Southern California Edison equipment and plunged about 150,000 people in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties into darkness.

SCE has been named in class-action lawsuits and wrongful death cases for the alleged role its equipment played in starting the fire, which in turn is implicated in the Montecito debris flows that killed 23 people and damaged hundreds of homes during the heavy rains of Jan. 9. 

Since the Thomas Fire, SCE officials have announced a plan to implement Public Safety Power Shutoffs, a strategy to turn off electricity to certain areas during “extreme fire conditions,” but have not done so in Santa Barbara County. 

They also released statements Oct. 30 admitting the company's equipment was involved in one of the fire’s two starting points, along Koenigstein Road.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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