It is early Thursday morning, and I’ve heard Highway 101 is closed in both directions between Santa Barbara and Ventura. I’d called late the night before from La Conchita to pass on notes about the Thomas Fire from the Wednesday night press briefing. All was quiet.
Just a few miles down Highway 101 from La Conchita, flames were right at the road’s edge but not here.
Just a few hours later, all hell was breaking loose in the hills above La Conchita, as dozens of engine crews were feverishly working to save this small community once again.
We’re just into the third day of the Thomas Fire, and we’re now over 115,000 acres burned, more than 520 structures damaged or destroyed, and there is no end in sight.
Worst, the smoke is so thick it’s almost impossible to get a sense of how close it is to us. All we know is that we’re being told it is coming and we’d better be prepared.
Today I’ve decided to head up Highway 150 to see if the fire had crossed over and might be heading north up towards the Santa Ynez Mountain crest.
I’d been along it the day before and spent time on the old Davis Ranch, where crews were busily prepping in case the fire made a northernly turn. There were a few spot fires near the intersection of Highways150 and 192, and more along the backside of Rincon Mountain, but nothing that looks like it might be a problem.
While everyone else is worrying about the fire lines along the coast, I’m wondering what might happen if the fire is able to find a path into the backcountry.
I’m guessing that Carpinteria is safe from the fire coming off Rincon Mountain given the huge amount of orchards and the fact the fire is running out of brush to burn. But it won’t be clear if that’s the case until a bit later.
Sizar on Fire
On Tuesday, as I drove east through Ojai to survey the fire damage, I continued along Highway 150 to the point where it begins to drop down towards Santa Paula. Almost everything south of 150 had either burned or was about to.
Then I spotted a column of smoke on the north side of the highway in the upper part of Sizar Canyon. To me, this is a giant red flag. I’m thinking, what if the fire in Sizar goes over the top?
The last fire in the Sespe was the 162,702-acre Day Fire in 2006. The one before that, the Wolf Fire in 2002, was a bit over 22,000 acres.
At the briefing Wednesday night, when we were told that fire activity would be heaviest on the west (La Conchita) side, and also the northeast side, that worry about Sizar came up again. I asked if this meant the fire might be heading over the Topatopas Mountains and into the Sespe Wilderness.
“That’s a possibility,” I was told, but when I asked what the probability that might happen, I couldn’t get an answer.
Turns out what happened Wednesday night while La Conchita was being threatened was sort of impossible to imagine. Rather than heading up over the Topatopas, the wind flow carried the fire 5-7 air miles due west along the flanks of the Topotopa Mountains just above Ojai to the point where it crossed Highway 33 almost directly at the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
From there, the fire continued its western path directly up its spiny ridge to the crest.
Heading up Highway 33
It is now 9 a.m., and as I’m about to turn onto Highway 33, a series of beeps on my phone tells me to check my messages.
“The fire’s crossed 33,” I’m told.
Another reports radio traffic that says there is smoke near Divide Peak, which means two things to me: The fire line might now be in Santa Barbara County, and the real danger to Carpinteria might well be from above.
A half mile up Highway 33 and my worries are confirmed. There’s charred brush on both sides of the road, and I can see a dozen or so small fires on the lower part of the ridge leading up to the Santa Ynez Mountains. I’m also hearing the fire has burned through Matilija Canyon.
I head there to see if that is true. A down power line and burning pole across the road stop me for a bit, but I’m able to follow a Forest Service truck around the wires and up to the Matilija turnoff.
Up here, the sun is out and the air is clear. As I make the turn around the first corner, I can see the entire upper canyon and the good news is that nothing down in the canyon has burned.
The bad news is that I can see a huge column of smoke building on the Santa Ynez crest, and it is at least three air miles west of Highway 33. It is definitely heading towards Divide Peak.
A few hours later, after I’ve retreated back to Highway 33, the route in to Matilija Canyon closes off as spot fires near the base of the canyon turn into 20-30 foot walls of flame.
The fire is now heading up Matilija Canyon, and is also beginning to work its way along the high ridges on the west side of Highway 33, paralleling it up the road.
At the same time, a number of spot fires merge on the Topatopa side and begin to threaten a small community known as the “North Fork.”
The wind pushes the flames north up towards Wheeler Gorge, not too far from where the 1985 Wheeler Fire began that burned up much of the same country. It appears the entire main canyon may burn tonight and possibly Matilija as well.
It is time to start thinking of how to deal with a fire that appears to be heading west to a point where any wind flow down the canyon above Carpinteria could directly threaten the entire community.
It is also time to begin thinking of what the impact might be of fire in the upper Santa Ynez river drainage, as occurred during the Wheeler Fire.
It is also time to begin rethinking how we deal with fire given the new normal, which appears to be continued drought, fires that may occur every month of the year, and one which is costing us so much, both in terms of lives, homes and dollars.
One phase of the Thomas Fire may just be ending, but another entirely unanticipated one may be beginning.
— 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.