Monday, January 1, 2018

THOMAS: the Perfect Fire, Part 2.

I cannot recommend trying to sleep in a car, even next to such an enchantingly picturesque beach as Carpinteria. This is especially true if you have a cat yowling at full volume in the back seat. I wondered dimly if a towel draped over the carrier would shut him up, as it does a parrot, but was far too cold and stiff to go to all the trouble of finding out.

Our first day as refugees from the fire: actually, I suppose "evacuees" is more accurate than “refugees", which I think implies something political. Nuances of vocabulary aside, once a brief glance at the fire map had dispelled all hope of returning home in the foreseeable future, we needed two things in fairly short order: breakfast, and a bathroom.  (How I felt for families wjth babies or small children to care for!) The first café we tried could not serve us breakfast because power outages had played havoc with their computers, which were down for who knew how long. I briefly considered volunteering to scramble any number of eggs with no help from a computer whatsoever, but thought better of it. Which is quite possibly why I’m still alive today.

We were relieved to find a Motel 6 with a vacancy, and planned to spend the next night there. But ever-vigilant fire watcher Lorna had other ideas: parts of US 101 had been closed, or were in danger of being closed; Thomas was roaring north and would soon be threatening Carpinteria. She strongly advised that we move up the coast to Goleta, just north of Santa Barbara, and adjacent to the airport.

Ah yes, the airport. For, in an act of cosmic serendipity, we were booked to fly up to Seattle from Santa Barbara that very Thursday, returning on Monday.  It seemed downright cavalier to leave our pet sitter in charge of a house that might burst into flames any moment, but she insisted she was up to the challenge. Knowing how much the dogs loved and trusted her, also that there was still absolutely nothing either Robin or I could do apart from look anguished and wring our hands - and I’m none too sure how to do even that. (Note To Self: watch more Victorian melodramas), we reasoned that, once evacuated, we might as well be in Seattle as in a motel.

Meanwhile, we looked into having the Humane Society go and rescue the dogs, as they were picking up large animals (horses, zebras, giraffes etc.) in the evacuation zone: they refused, unimpressed by my argument that both Great Danes were easily the size of a small horse. I'll swear I shrank a good three inches under the withering glare of the H.S. rep when I admitted that yes, we no longer owned a vehicle big enough to transport both dogs.

My special relationship with my clothes was getting pretty intense by now, and we were both longing for a shower; thus we disobeyed Lorna's explicit orders and drove home. That was probably the most extraordinary drive of my life. The air, as we crossed the Ventura County line, became putrid with smoke. Where it was thinner we saw evidence of the firefighters’ extraordinary work: over and over again, fire blackened hillsides reached right down to houses that stood unharmed at their base. But tragically, some still smoking piles of rubble amid charred trees marked the spot where a family’s life-as-they-knew-it was terminated, an enforced fresh start imposed

Hopes of a shower were thwarted yet again: Lorna told us that all four exit roads had been closed an hour or two previously, sealing off the flaming Ojai Valley from the outside world. One exit was now open, and we should take it while we could. Pausing only to grab a few clothes for our Seattle trip, and to reassure the dogs of our fundamental, all-appearances-to-the-contrary-notwithstanding dependability,
we bade our home au revoir, hoping it would not prove to be adieu.

I can prevaricate no longer: I must tell you about Tuesday and Wednesday nights. But first, a slightly more intensive geography lesson: the Ojai Valley sits roughly 750 feet above sea level and is approximately 3 miles wide and 10 miles long. To the north are mountains ranging from four or five thousand feet to the imposing Topa Topas, visible to the north-east from our dining room window, at close to 7 thousand. Mountains to the south, which our kitchen looks out on, are not to be sneezed at, checking in at around 3 thousand.

Only one road, the 150, traverses the valley, providing the sole exit to the east; to the west it is briefly joined by the 33, which offers a straight run to Ventura in one direction, a “gee, it sure looked shorter on the map” mass of sudden inclines and hairpin bends leading – eventually – to Maricopa in the other. Firefighters were making a desperate effort to redirect the fire to bypass Ojai to the south. That is to say, within a few hundred yards of our house. This critical time was to occur on Tuesday night; danger was directly proportional to wind speed.

Tuesday evening's weather forecast was far from reassuring; in fact, it was downright terrifying. The Chief Weather Guru waved his arms at a map featuring a massive, immobile high pressure area centered on us which, he stated bluntly, meant inevitable winds of at least thirty mph blowing the fire from the mountaintops, down the valley, straight at our little town. Losing our home looked like a certainty. “It’s only stuff” was the mantra I had heard repeated. True, true, but we are at heart a sacramental people, imbuing our “stuff” with all the power of the memories that it invokes.

We went to bed dreading what the morrow would bring – and yet when we awoke, the weatherman had been dumbfounded, the “inevitable” winds had failed to materialize. Ojai was saved! The fire chief himself called it “miraculous”.

To cut a very long story short, we had an almost exact replay on Wednesday, with the exception that the fire, driven by winds of 3-4 mph (not 30-40, thank you CWG) and strongly encouraged by legions of fire fighters, skirted Ojai to the north, threatening our good friends’ homes, but ultimately leaving most of Ojai standing.

Postlude:  January 1, 2018
And there the story of the fire – or at least, our involvement with it - comes to an end. Still no rain, but the winds finally show signs of abating, giving firefighters a chance to contain the active edges of the fire. But back in early December, Thomas was till 100% unchecked. We flew out of Santa Barbara the next day, Thursday, on a packed plane, returning on a half empty one four days later (funny thing – nobody wanted to be in Santa Barbara anymore). Our car was covered in ash, which blew off as we drove. Breathing masks were essential, both indoors and out; the air in town looked like diluted porridge, and was chokingly hard to breathe (shades of Beijing). Everywhere we went, we were acutely reminded of our good fortune: so many people were homeless, or had lost their livelihood – a car mechanic’s garage with all his tools, a potter’s barn, burned to the ground; a craft shop aimed at the tourists who ordinarily flock to Ojai, closed for lack of customers. Restaurants with a freezer full of spoiled food and no patrons. It has been inspiring - and truly humbling – to see how the community has rallied to help those affected by the fire.

Incidentally, the entire firefighting system was incredibly impressive – they fought with brains, not just water and fire retardant. Foreseeing a problem, they moved to extinguish it like a panther closing in on its prey. Would that our government acted with such grace and economy of movement! The police too were phenomenal, maintaining order and preventing looting.

It could have been so much worse, but Thomas still stands unchallenged as the biggest and most destructive wildfire in the history of California.


  1. Very vivid description of the fire! Love your facts mixed with feelings as the fire progressed. Love that your home remained unscathed!!

  2. I can only imagine!! You must be dumb with shock and loss. Even though you didn't loose your home, all around you is unimaginable loss! Has our kitty forgiven you? How about the dogs?