After the Fires: Gratitude and Anxiety

After the Fires: Gratitude and Anxiety
Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire Department via AP
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SUMMERLAND, Calif.--As the largest forest fire in California’s history slowly burns itself out in the remote reaches of the Los Padres National Forest, residents of Santa Barbara County are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

The Thomas Fire, which began on December 4 near tiny Thomas Aquinas College in the town of Santa Paula, has consumed 282,000 acres, about 440 square miles. It forced evacuation of thousands of residents in Santa Barbara, Carpenteria, Montecito and Summerland, the small coastal community where my wife and I live. Most evacuees, including us, are back home now and thankful for the remarkable firefighting skill and ingenuity that saved all but a handful of homes in the Montecito hills.

Our neighbors to the southeast in Ventura were less fortunate. There, the Thomas Fire advanced an acre per minute in the early hours of the blaze and destroyed an estimated 800 homes before firefighters gained the upper hand. (The official count is 1,063 structures, which includes barns and other outbuildings.) Most important, the fatality count of two was unbelievably low for such a massive blaze. A woman crashed her car while evacuating and a firefighter was killed as his strike team worked in a dangerous canyon. Compare that to an October fire in Napa and Sonoma counties in Northern California wine country where emergency response was slow and warning systems failed. That fire killed 44 people; more than 10,000 homes were lost.

Here in Santa Barbara County, the dominant emotion as we enter the new year is gratitude. Signs thanking firefighters are everywhere. Many signs add the word “heroes.”

While the firefighters are rightly praised for bravery, it was the sensible strategy and historical knowledge of experienced fire commanders that outwitted the Thomas Fire and saved so many homes and lives. Despite Santa Barbara’s image as a paradise on the Pacific, we are haunted—and, as it turns out, helped—by the ghosts of past wildland fires. The Zaca Fire of 2007 consumed 7,000 acres in nearby mountains; the Tea Fire of 2008 destroyed 210 homes in Santa Barbara and Montecito; the Jesusita Fire of 2009 added another 80 homes; and the Sherpa Fire of 2016 burnt 7,400 acres in the mountains and along the coast, forcing the evacuation of campgrounds; the Whittier Fire this year north of Santa Barbara near Lake Cachuma burned 18,000 acres and destroyed 16 homes.

The overall objective of the unified fire command was to force the Thomas Fire into areas burned in these earlier blazes where the fuel supply was relatively scant. To this end they used a barrage of weapons: a huge “scooper” aircraft that could pick up 1,600 gallons of water from a nearby lake in seconds to drop on the flames, fixed-wing aircraft with colored fire retardant, helicopters that used both water and retardant, and an army of ground-based firefighters. These firefighters, nearly 9,000-strong at the fire’s peak, retreated to safe havens when winds were high and then retaliated after the winds shifted or abated—the term used is “fire-following”—with hoses, picks, shovels and a series of back fires.

The tactics of the fire command were as sound as the strategy. Every day at 3 a.m. a fixed-wing aircraft with ultra-violet sensory equipment was sent over the area. A similarly equipped helicopter made the same flight after dawn. The mapping made from these two rounds of photos enabled the commanders to dispatch personnel to the most critical points of the blaze.

The terrain is rugged in the Montecito hills. Canyons in Santa Barbara County run north-south and become corridors of fire when the north wind blows. Firefighters established lines on East Camino Cielo, a ridgeline 3,600 feet above Santa Barbara. The crucial day was December 16 when a wind event with gusts over 60 miles an hour blew down the canyons.  That was the day when Montecito and Summerland were evacuated. Firefighters didn’t want residents impeding their maneuvers on narrow hillside roads and were also concerned that homeowners anxious to save their property might not get out in time.

“Honestly, I thought it was going to burn to the beach,” Santa Barbara County Fire Department Capt. Dave Zaniboni told The Independent, a popular weekly newspaper. “I was absolutely shocked when I didn’t see any fire below [Highway] 192,” the east-west road dividing mountain foothills from more heavily populated coastal communities.

But despite the 60-mph gusts, overall winds were not quite as strong as had been feared, and the firefighters had done their work well.  The Thomas Fire was held in the hills. According to the Independent, 1,300 homes were threatened that day. All but 10 of them were saved from destruction; another 10 were damaged.

The fire occurred in one of the driest and warmest Decembers on record.  No rain has fallen in Ventura since February; Santa Barbara has experienced only a couple of inches. Some climatologists believe we may be seeing a resumption of the extreme five-year drought that supposedly ended with heavy rain last winter. These rains produced a bumper crop of fuel for this year’s fires. But as fire officials see it, the weather was the chief culprit.

“With the absence of any significant precipitation this fall, fuels have become critically dry across much of Southern California,” said the official report on the Thomas Fire. “In addition there has been a prolonged period of warm, dry, and windy weather which has worked in concert with the lack of rainfall to produce catastrophic wildfires. The Thomas Fire is now the largest fire in California history. This would be significant if it were summer; however, it is unprecedented in December, and it serves as a testimony to the extreme volatility of the fuels.”

It is not only the firefighters who have learned the lessons of past fires. Unlike in the Northern California wine country, where wildfires are rare, Santa Barbarans are perennially on the alert for catastrophe. Most of us have signed up for emergency warnings, delivered by alternatives of email, texts, or voice mail on cellphones and land lines. Emergency updates came fast and frequently during the Thomas Fire, in one case too quickly. An early warning during the first week of the fire told some residents to evacuate before it was necessary to do so. But the warning was quickly rescinded, and in any case, the maxim of better safe than sorry applies.

Santa Barbara County residents also benefited from consistent and courageous coverage of the fire by the local television station, KEYT, which provided full-time coverage around the clock in the crucial days of the fire and excellent reports of trouble spots by well-informed correspondents.  As a reporter for The Washington Post, I covered the Big Sur fire of 1977 and the deadly Oakland firestorm of 2001 and appreciate the difficulty of making sense of these natural disasters.  KEYT’s coverage of the Thomas Fire was first-rate.

With the fire now a memory and the air again safe to breath without a face mask, the widespread local feeling of gratitude is tinged with anxiety. We worry that when the rains come, if they do, they could create mudslides on the ash-covered hills. And we realize also that there is now a year-round fire season in Southern California and that another blaze could come at any time of day or night.

In Santa Barbara there is always a fire next time.

Lou Cannon a former reporter for The Washington Post and biographer of Ronald Reagan, lives in Summerland.

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