The Thomas Fire

The Thomas Fire

Sometime around Nov 28th I began seeing forecast estimates of a high velocity wind event for Central and So Cal. Taking a cursory look at the Unified Forecast Analysis did not particularly indicate that this would occur. That telltale high pressure which would first be seen just above Washington or over E Oregon was not on the weather map. I recall thinking: “that’s odd”.

But I had been watching an old familiar pattern develop over the Western US, that of a ridge of high pressure. I knew that this meant wind and fire risk. We have massive pepper trees behind my house. I had called SCE out, since power lines ran through the branches. They said that they would get out in the Spring and trim them back. The lowest line was most heavily impacted and the site inspector said it was low voltage (Cable etc) and well strung.

So I had gone to town and cleared about 5000 pounds of limbs from over the house and around the lines (Yes, I did the main power line as well) I do not encourage anyone to do that. I am experienced at this sort of thing, and exercise known safety procedures thereby limiting personal and property risk. I was simply safeguarding my home and family (and neighbors)

On Monday  Dec 4th, I saw ENE wind velocities ramp into the 40 kt plus range on the reporting stations, and packed all my photo gear to go shoot some water-ocean work down below Pt Mugu. In the course of the day I was surprised by the low air temps and wind chill. Typically these events, known locally as Santa Anas, come with hot air temps created by convectional heating as the winds rush down slope from the Great Basin.

By 4pm I had seen a few gusts which caused white out conditions. That is when the ocean turns white from wind impact, and all you see is spray. I knew it meant wind in excess of 60 Kts.  This is what I was seeing.

At sunset I headed back to Ventura to process my work. Back in the office I got two phone calls. One from my wife, who said that it was snowing ash downtown. The second was from Shawn Alladio, who was in Morro Bay, finishing some K38 Rescue coursework. She and Nyko, one of our instructors, would be passing through Ventura around 8:30. I arranged to meet them as they did a coffee shop pit stop.

In the interim I located the fire ignition point, which was in a park near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, and re packed my gear to go cover what I thought would be a potentially dramatic fire event. 15 minutes with Shawn and Nyko allowed us to exchange gifts and stories and discuss the incident bloom. Shawn had the company truck and trailer and had offered to help us evac. I declined the kindness and we said our goodbyes.

Hopping onto the 126 N, I got as far as Wells Rd and pulled off. The fire was already there, and rocketing down valley at Ventura, with the tempo of a steady 30-40 Kt wind pushing it. I shot a few frames, had a good look, and knew it would try to cross straight over to W Ventura.

The Thomas Fire two hours after ignition in Santa Paula at Wells Rd.


Driving up Highway 33, at about 9:30, it was obvious my neighborhood was directly in the chimney for the fire, which by now was dubbed with the “Thomas” moniker.

We began organizing for a bug out, and computers, camera systems, digital storage etc all went into my wife and I’s cars. (We had rehearsed this prior) Blue Wolf had planned on spending the night, as he had a medical appointment on Loma Vista, and had arrived. He works as a Nat Forest Service observer for the Chumash, so he and I are frequently joined at the hip for fire events. Between the two of us, the knowledge base is rather extensive. It was great to have him there.

He noticed the glow in the smoke behind the ridge line first. I was upstairs and watched Grant Park flare up down valley from us. As I got back outside, I heard Blue Wolf waking the neighbors. As we all stood outside our homes, someone mentioned the fire may have skipped by us since it was at Grant Park already.

My response was “Wait for it.” 5 minutes later, directly down from us, the fire roared over the ridge line and went straight into the Vista Del Mar hospital. Right then an agency response team walked up to us and asked if we were leaving, as the neighborhood was woken up by Law Enforcement and ordered out. We confirmed, and I shot these few frames before we all rolled out.

Our House. Last looks. Thomas Fire.


As we left, I saw an engine company up behind our house on Dakota. One engine standing guard. I did not envy them.

We caravanned down the hill, with Blue driving Donna’s car, and she in mine, and turned up valley, to avoid the  complete traffic gridlock created by the City Of Ventura’s awful disaster planning, with Ventura Avenue’s one lane for all traffic out of the area. They recently made it much worse by placing a new residential development right next to our neighborhood. Fortunately It was still 100 percent uninhabited. I have always been struck by the sheer stupidity of my City (Many municipalities have this issue) in disaster preparedness when planning developments. They go full retard. Somehow infrastructure demands seem to never be realistically considered. This was a prime example of that, in a near worst case scenario. I had wondered what else would surface in this event. Disasters are good for exposing weak links and planning, as well as strengths.

At Shell Rd we saw the fire headed down into the pumping fields, and knew that eventually our neighborhood would be surrounded in flame. We cruised up coast, and parked next to the water at Solimar. Some guys in a service truck told us they were oil field contractors who had been working directly above us inland. They said the fire was “up there” already.  They were evacuated out of their Motel 6 in Ventura, and wanted to know what was going on. I told them, and suggested they head N to Carp and check into a hotel right away, before they all filled up.

About 1 am as we watched the glow, I took and made calls into the burn area.  I reached West Cook, whose house is right below Grant Park. He and his wife were at Vons on Main St, below the ridge we had seen flame up. We went over to meet them, and watched in silence as an inferno wrapped the hill, with their house in the middle of it, and saw the fire begin to make it’s way into our down town.

Then we saw a hose stream reach out into the fire. One stream, which landed directly on West and Sho’s house.  It was amazing to us that there was a unit doing what they were. At that point someone shouted that City Hall was in the fire. We knew that our studio-gallery would be at risk. Things looked bad for our little corner of Ventura. West and I quietly walked around, and camera in hand, I shot a few frames and video clips, every so often. The mood was deeply somber. This was really happening. A fire storm.

West’s House below Grant Park
West’s House below Grant Park


We learned later that FD had stopped the house from burning, and a determined West and his FD Dept neighbor had spent the night extinguishing embers in the neighborhood with shovels, rakes and hoses in spite of the mandatory evac order.

It was a long night. The first of what would prove to be many. It is two weeks later now, as I write this, and the fire still burns up valley and now up above Santa Barbara, in the wilderness area. Much to say about all of that later, as I documented a lot of the burn in towards the ocean via Montecito.

The following morning I stood on the waterline at Solimar, an hour before sunrise. Waves of ash and fire debris had washed up during the night. I got Donna and Blue up, and we drove up the 33, exiting at Shell Road. The fire was making it’s way down through the pumping field.

We headed back up to our neighborhood. That same FD Engine crew was there. They looked exhausted and were watching.

At the house, winds were calm. Odd, I thought. We stood in the driveway as the eastern sky brightened. Suddenly the wind started up. Someone said we may have made it. “No we haven’t” I recall saying. And right then the fire re-appeared, steadily burning down right at our house. It was a scant 100 yards away. Looking back as we left, the wall of flame had this resoluteness about it. I recall thinking:  “I guess that is it for our house”. We drove away. We were now fire refugees and the mandatory evac order and power outage underscored the more blatant choking smoke, and exploding cacophony of the continuing fire storm engulfing Ventura.

I assumed at that point, both our home and businesses were probably gone.

Knowing the topography of our area and the weather pattern, it was obvious this fire would burn towards Carp and eventually could enter SB. I made a few calls to family and friends telling them what to expect, as we trailed Blue Wolf, who was still driving Donna’s car, up to his place in Isla Vista.

My wife still had not grasped the enormity. She wanted to stay close to home and business. I pulled the car over in Summerland and  told her we were headed to Morro Bay, so we could get out of the smoke. I have not needed to be this stern with her in years. We then headed to meet Blue and pick up her car, which also had our two cats in it. LOL.

Unbeknownst to Donna, I had let Shawn Alladio in on my evac plans and she had booked us multiple nights at a favorite Hotel there, which she uses when doing Rescue Boat Operator courses. She had also contacted Becka at the Harbor Patrol office.

As we checked into our room, a note and some gifts were on the bed, courtesy of our dear friends and the Hotel. Donna went to find us some food and I set to work doing intel on the fire and our companies. Shawn at that point had founded an info page on Facebook so we could stay informed. The page which is still up of course, has over 6000 participants on it. Since it is run from the perspective of a sage Disaster First Responder, the information is streamed steadily and updated continually. It was already a disaster and recovery blueprint at that early point in the fire. She had named it “Thomas Fire Watch and Updates for Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties“. Myself and several others were named as Admins and we all began to populate the page so that the community could have accurate info on the broad range of subjects which need to be addressed in a large scale fire disaster, and to have questions answered. We had used the FB platform prior a bit earlier this year during Hurricane Harvey, and it seemed to work in helping to create an info conduit.

Three beautiful days in Morro Bay passed quickly, as we managed business and fire logistics from our hotel room. We could see the smoke way out to sea from the fire headed W. We drove back in, ready, thanks to Shawn and our community.

Studio Drive, Cayucos. I ran wind sprints on the beach to burn off stress. My wife surfed. That is smoke out to sea.

My wife did a fantastic blog which underscored what our response as a family and business owners has been. We are surrounded by an amazing group of First Responders. They knew how to get us back in the game. Now it was our turn to carry the ball. So we did. Here:

Sorry for the long book here. So much more went down in those first days of the fire than I can or would write about. I will post again in a few days hopefully.

Aloha nui loa.

Betty Strong

Leave a reply