The smoke from the Thomas Fire in the upper part of Wheeler Canyon is pretty intense. I’ve finally been able to get past a downed power line and worked my way along a rock-strewn section of Highway 33 to the Matilija Canyon turnoff.
The canyon road leads up over a small knoll and down into what is a surprisingly long canyon that follows a picturesque creek for close to five miles before a locked Forest Service gate prevents further road access. Beyond this are a few ranches, the Matilija Wilderness and the Santa Barbara County line.
I stop at the top of the knoll to check my surroundings, not sure if I’ll get cut off by the fire below me along Highway 33. A few spot fires close to the point where the creek empties into the North Fork of the Ventura River are also a bit of concern, but at this point they don’t seem too threatening.
Across Highway 33 the Topatopa ridge is smoking hot, with winds that are taking the fire in a northeast direction and away from me — at least for now. With a bit of apprehension, I turn the corner and head into Matilija Canyon.
I’m happy to see that nothing in the canyon has burned. I’d been told earlier that the previous night’s winds had blown the fire through the Matilija area, but the flames are still high up on the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
The Matilija Road takes a winding path up the canyon, curving up and over a series of small hills. With cottonwood trees and willows filling the canyon bottom, this would normally be a beautiful drive. But I keep wondering if my good luck will hold.
Having been here many times before, I know there is a small community that calls this area home. There are perhaps fifty families who live up here, but given the way the houses are tucked into the trees and in some cases hidden from view, there may be many more.
The Resistant Few
To my surprise, as I come around a corner, I spot a Jeep Wrangler heading my way. There are two occupants, Dick and Billie Carroll.
Dick is a long-time Matilija resident, long enough that he still remembers when the Wheeler Fire burned through the area in 1985.
“It wasn’t the fire that hurt so much,” he tells me later. “It was the floods that came through the next winter.”
Along with Dick is his son, Billie, who has come up from Santa Paula to stay with him.
We talk a bit and I ask him, “Are the two of you planning on staying?”
Dick nods his head. “We’re prepared.”
I ask him if he’ll show me his house and what he’s done to be so confident that they’ll be OK. “Follow me,” he says.
The Carroll spread is near the upper end of the Matilija community. I stop here and there to check a few of the houses.
Everyone else seems to have left and it is understandable why. I’m seeing houses that seem primed to burn: lots of wood structures; overhanging eaves, wooden decks; and many surrounded with heavy brush and trees.
I’m a little worried the Carrolls might not know what they are getting in for.
Several miles up the canyon, the Jeep makes a left turn through a group of trees. The house is small but looks tidy.
I park off to the right in a fairly large open area that gives me a little hope that they’ll be OK. Other than the trees, water tanks, a small shed and several shipping containers, there isn’t much between the house and the creek, which appears to be at least 50 yards away.
I discover Dick and Billie are not the only ones who’ve stayed. I also meet Jim Cook and his friend, Katie Wellman, who live next door from Dick.
So I ask Dick, “Are you sure you’re prepared if this thing comes through here?”
I’m a little skeptical given the house is wood frame, there’s a pretty large tree hanging over a part of the roof, and he’s got a wood deck facing the creek that looks like it would go up when the first flames come this way.
“Come on around here,” Dick says, leading me past a small shed. “We’ve got the only open area anywhere along the creek….The Forest Service has seen it and certified it as a safe zone. Our insurance company has even said we’re good to go.”
In the background, I can hear a generator running.
“That is attached to one of our water tanks.” Dick turns and points towards the creek. “We’ve got another 10,000-gallon tank over there and a separate generator set up to pump water from that one. That’s a total of 25,000 gallons of water available to us of we need it.”
I’m still skeptical. They’re above ground I point out. And what about that wood deck?
Dick smiles at me and says, “We’ve got sprinklers on the roof that will soak it and the deck down.”
He also reminds me he’s got a lot of open space between the house and the creekbed.
It’s a big space but I remember two night ago when the fire crossed Creek Road near Oakview. The flames had been more than twice the height of the nearby trees and more like a firestorm swirling overhead, covering the entire road at one point and more-than-likely impossible to survive.
So I summarize what seems like Dick’s plan is to survive if the fire reaches their doorstep.
“You’ve got two different sources of water, two different pumping systems, 25,000 gallons of water and a big open space that you believe will keep you safe,” I say. “But what happens if these things don’t work?”
Dick bends down and points under the house.
“That’s the basement, fully lined with concrete and we’ll be heading down there if need be.”
I’m not sure I’d want to be inside that with a burning house immediately above me, but I can’t deny that they’ve done what they need to give themselves the best chance possible.
I wish Dick and his son Billie luck as I head back to my truck, thankful I wasn’t staying the night.
“I’ll check on you tomorrow,” I tell them, “to make sure you’re OK.”
A Final Note
Within a few hours after I left Matilija Canyon, I was standing across Highway 33 near the entry to another small enclave, the North Fork community, when the first flames began to creep up to the knoll where the road leads into Matilija Canyon.
At first it was just a few flames peeking up over the road, but quickly the fire began to build and within minutes the fire was across the road, heading north on the ridge above Highway 33 and probably also directly into Matilija Canyon. Escape out was no longer possible.
Here is to Dick and Billie Carroll, Jim Cook and his friend, Katie Wellman, and best wishes that you’ll be OK. Hopefully I’ll see you today.
— Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. His previous work can be seen at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.