Updated at 12:40 p.m. Dec. 18:
Residents living in all areas from Toro Canyon west to Olive Mill Road/Hot Springs Road and from U.S. Highway 101 north to state route 192 have been notified that they are able to return to their neighborhoods and homes.
Evacuation warning orders have been lifted for the following areas:
• The area defined by West Mission Street at Highway 101, east to State Street, north to Constance Avenue and east to Garden Street, south to Los Olivos Street, east to Alameda Padre Serra, south to South Salinas Street to Highway 101, and from Highway 101 east to Alameda Padre Serra/South Salina Street. West Mission Street.
• All areas south of Highway 101 to the Pacific Ocean, between Ninos Drive east to Sheffield Road.
• All areas from Toro Canyon Road, east to Casitas Pass Road and between Highway 101, north to Foothill Road.
• All areas east of Cravens Lane to Casitas Pass Road and Foothill Road north to East Camino Cielo.
Updated at 11:45 a.m. Dec. 18:
Gusty winds that reached 60-70 mph again over the weekend calmed down and gave firefighters a much-needed break on Dec. 18. Forecasts remained favorable for Tuesday, but winds were expected to pick back up Wednesday through Thursday.
The Thomas fire had grown to 270,500 acres by Dec. 18 — the third largest in California history — racking up more than $130.9 million in firefighting costs. More than 1,000 buildings have been destroyed in the blaze, including more than 750 residences.
The fire was 45 percent contained Dec. 18, with full containment estimated around Jan. 7.
Over the weekend, the blaze edged into the city of Santa Barbara, forcing evacuations in parts of Santa Barbara, Montecito, Mission Canyon and as far west as Highway 154. A large swath of the Lagoon District and downtown were also put on alert.
The fire also continued to grow to the northeast, threatening the city of Fillmore and nearby agricultural areas.
Fire officials said they were taking advantage of the favorable conditions to make significant progress, using a “direct attack” at Gibraltar Road.
Updated at 11:35 p.m. Dec. 15:
Firefighters had contained about a third of the Thomas fire by Dec. 15, though it continued to grow through the night near Santa Barbara and Fillmore, reaching 252,000 acres.
More than 8,300 personnel had responded to the fire, putting 1,012 engines, 62 water tenders and 32 helicopters to use. Cost of containment had grown to $88.8 million.
Cal Fire Information Officer Scott McLean identified the firefighter who was killed on Dec. 14 while battling the blaze as San Diego engineer Corey Iverson, 32.
“He died while fighting the fire in the Fillmore area, and he unfortunately leaves behind his wife who is five months pregnant, a 2-year-old daughter, parents and other family members,” McLean said.
The circumstances of the incident were still under investigation, he added, as was the cause of the fire.
Direct line construction continued above the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito. Improvements were also being made on the fire line in the Fillmore area, and crews were extending direct line construction into the Zaca fire footprint toward Highway 33 in Ventura County.
Work on Highway 33 also included possible future operations in the Matilija wilderness toward Rose Valley, a spokesperson said.
Morning winds were expected to push the fire north and northeast with gusts around 12 mph. In the evening, they were expected to pick up, reaching 15 to 25 mph along mountain ranges.
Evacuation orders had been lifted and repopulation had begun in the Matilija Canyon area and the area surrounding Matilija Lake, but a mandatory evacuation had been ordered for the area bounded by Sespe Creek, Burson Ranch, the Los Padres Forest boundary and city of Fillmore City with advisories for parts of the city.
Updated at 1:25 p.m. Dec. 14:
Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott confirmed the death of a Cal Fire engineer from the San Diego unit who was fighting the Thomas fire Dec. 14.
The firefighter’s family has been notified.
“More details will be made available as they are confirmed,” he said in a news release. “In the meantime, please join me in keeping our fallen firefighter and his loved ones in your prayers and all the responders on the front lines in your thoughts as they continue to work under extremely challenging conditions.”
Updated at 11:25 a.m. Dec. 14:
The Thomas fire became the fourth largest fire in California history, surpassing the 2007 Zaca fire in Santa Barbara to reach 242,500 acres on Dec. 14.
Emergency response teams numbering more than 8,100 personnel had the fire 30 percent contained, and costs to fight it had grown to $74.7 million. The Ventura County Sheriff’s office said in a tweet that full containment was expected on Jan. 7.
Air quality improved slightly and was expected to improve for Ventura and Oxnard, but remained unhealthy in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Ojai.
Mandatory and voluntary evacuations were still in effect for parts of the communities of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito, as well as La Conchita, Fillmore and Ventura, while firefighters worked to establish fire breaks in previous burn areas from the Tea and Jesusita fires.
Ron Nichols, president of Southern California Edison called the effects of the Thomas fire “unprecedented” in a Dec. 14 presentation to the California Public Utilities Commission. The fire was still threatening critical power lines that serve the greater Santa Barbara area and Edison said that other outages may occur.
In response to forecasts for more dangerous weather conditions, the company is considering “limited preventative power shut off,” Nichols said, and has notified customers and law enforcement in those areas.
As of the evening of Dec. 13, only about 500 customers remained without power due to the Thomas fire and the company had fully restored power to customers affected by the Creek, Rye and Liberty fires. Around 900 employees were working to repair equipment and poles.
“I expect we’ll probably see more of such action in the future when climate change increases and we have more extreme weather and more fires,” Nichols said.
As of press time Dec. 13:
Businesses in Ventura County have started tallying their losses as the massive Thomas fire continued to burn north and west through Santa Barbara County.
More than 100,000 people had evacuated and upward of 700 residences — mostly in Ventura — had been destroyed in the 237,500-acre blaze at press time Dec. 13. Containment had reached 25 percent, with nearly 8,000 personnel on hand to fight it, but critical power and communication lines, as well as thousands of structures, were still at risk.
The blaze, already the fifth-largest wildfire in the state’s history, began Dec. 4 near Santa Paula, ravaged Ventura, encircled Ojai, and then spread to hills above Carpinteria, Montecito and Santa Barbara. The cost of battling the fire had reached $61.5 million at press time.
Southern California Edison crews began repairs on accessible power lines Dec. 11, but the company said around 85,000 customers in its territory were still affected by outages and power surges due to the Thomas fire and other incidents throughout Southern California. The utility had requested that residents significantly reduce their power consumption to relieve demand on the taxed grid.
Hoteliers offered refuge for evacuees and a place to stay for firefighters who flooded in from cities throughout California and even neighboring Nevada. But Visit Santa Barbara CEO Kathy Janega-Dykes said many hotels had to cancel events, and outdoor businesses like sailing cruises and trolley tours had to close in the wake of the heavy smoke blanketing both counties and drifting as far north as San Luis Obispo.
Air quality warnings remained in effect, and Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Charity Dean advised residents to limit exposure by staying indoors or even leaving the region. She warned of cumulative effects over several days, especially for those with preexisting medical conditions, children and the elderly.
However, those looking to seek refuge in San Luis Obispo or East Ventura County should check the air quality index at their destination before heading out, since harmful particles often can’t be seen with the eye. The thousands of N-95 masks that have been distributed can be reused for many days as long as they aren’t crumpled, bent out of shape, wet or dirty, she said, so they can create an airtight seal on the face.
On Dec. 13, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved the use of $500,000 from the county General Fund to create an assistance program for evacuees, administered as part of the existing program for low-income households.
Residents who were displaced and have a household income of up to 120 percent of the median local income can now submit applications.
In Ventura and Santa Barbara’s downtowns, sidewalks have been strikingly empty of their normal foot traffic for days.
“It’s been up and down for us,” said Marge Cafarelli, owner of the Public Market in Santa Barbara.
Private events on the weekend boosted traffic, but “it certainly isn’t as robust as it would normally be,” Cafarelli said, and the market was forced to close temporarily due to power outages that left food vendors without hot water.
Working from her home in a voluntary evacuation zone, she said she wanted it to stay open as a place for the community, where visitors without power could find air conditioning and food.
“And there are a lot of the employees that are depending on the work, and I think the business owners are sensitive to that,” Cafarelli said.
Main Street businesses in Ventura had returned to something like normal by Dec. 11, after the fire came within a few blocks of their storefronts. But retailers were faced with sluggish activity and a loss of sales during what should be their busiest shopping season.
“A lot of the retailers are just wondering how we’re going to make it through a missed holiday season when the holiday season is pretty much our whole year,” said Ashley Pope, membership development manager for the Ventura Chamber of Commerce and owner of spice and tea shop SpiceTopia.
SpiceTopia makes around 30 percent of its annual sales during the holiday season, Pope said, and business owners who may have lost homes could also be looking at a big hit to their incomes.
“We all kind of lost Ventura as we know it, in a sense,” Pope said. “It would be really hard to see small businesses follow that … I know that Ventura will pull through. It’s a really strong, tight knit community.”
Regional businesses also joined the outpouring of donations and aid for those affected. Thousand Oaks-based Amgen pledged $500,000 to the United Way of Ventura County and other groups supporting Southern California wildfire victims, and the Amgen Foundation agreed to match contributions from Amgen staff.
The Santa Barbara and Ventura chambers of commerce joined forces, working with the Workforce Development Board to seek state and federal assistance under the banner “#805Strong.”
Farm Services Agency disaster funding is also available to reimburse growers for trees and other losses, as well as provide low-interest loans, said Ventura Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales.
Large numbers of cattle were reported lost in the fire, and nurseries in the Santa Paula and Ventura area were also hit hard, he said. The county is working to produce the official documentation required for growers to receive federal aid.
“Our thoughts are with those whose lives and properties have been impacted by the recent California fires, including some of Calavo’s own employees and growers,” said Lee Cole, president and CEO of Calavo Growers in Santa Paula. “Thankfully, none of our facilities sustained damage, and disruption to operations was minimal.”
Calavo itself does not grow avocadoes or own farmland in the region, Cole added, but the company anticipates some impacts to avocado crops.
“In many cases, they don’t even know and won’t know for some time” what their losses are, Gonzales said.
After three days of closures, the Santa Barbara Zoo reopened and offered free admission Dec. 13.
“Right now we’re taking it day by day,” said Director of Marketing Dean Noble. “A lot went into our decisions to open today, a lot of consultation and coordination … Our team has hustled to put together a variety of indoor activities and we know there are a lot of kids in the community who are itching to get out of the house. Some of our animals at the zoo are itching to get out into the sunshine as well.”
Animal access to outside areas was being done on a case-by-case basis, Noble said, and the zoo was taking several precautions in its cleanup efforts, including using reclaimed water, which is not used to combat the fire.
Chris Briggs, the director of safety and security, was monitoring the fire progression, and several trucks were on hand in the parking lot to whisk the animals to Los Angeles, where the LA Zoo has offered space to house them if the fire threatens. Santa Barbara Animal Control, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency and Bay Area group Safari West had all offered support in relocating them if necessary, Noble said.
“We’re also eager to keep our employees working this close to the holidays because we know they have plans and economic needs, and I’m sure other businesses feel the same way too,” Noble said. “We want to do everything we can to keep our people working and the local economy humming along, but safety first.”
Updated at 10:55 a.m. Dec. 12:
The Thomas fire had grown to more than 234,000 acres by Dec. 12, forcing more than 100,000 evacuees out of their homes in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties since it began Dec. 4.
The blaze was 20 percent contained as of 6:48 a.m. Dec. 12, Cal Fire reported. The cost of fighting the fire has reached $48.6 million, with nearly 7,000 personnel involved.
“It may be difficult to see, but steady progress is occurring,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Chief Eric Peterson.
A break in the severe winds and weather that had driven the fire toward Carpinteria and Montecito allowed the unified command to put large air tankers into action, Peterson added, estimating that they had poured 1.7 million gallons of water on the fire as of Dec. 11.
“We have two different types of firefights going on,” said District Ranger John Smith. Around 50 percent of the fire is in the Los Padres National Forest, while the remaining half is in urban areas.
The route of the fire bumped it up against areas that burned in the 2016 Rey fire and the 2009 Jesusita fire, where “younger fuels” are lending firefighting crews an advantage, said Battalion Chief Chris Childers. Fire fighting equipment is also being staged along Highway 154 as a precaution, said California Highway Patrol Capt. Cindy Pontes.
Officers are also monitoring evacuated communities, Pontes said. Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Bernard Melekian said the department had arrested one looter Monday morning during an attempt to steal from an evacuee’s garage, “and that person has been evacuated to the main jail.”
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley warned residents about potential fraud by scammers claiming to be contractors, as well as imposters posing as charities, and warned businesses not to attempt price gouging.
Updated at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 11:
The Thomas fire was raging in the hills above Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito on Dec. 11 after growing to 230,500 acres on Dec. 10, ranking it among the five largest blazes in California’s modern history.
Wind gusts pushed the massive blaze from Ventura County into Santa Barbara County over the weekend, forcing evacuations in Carpinteria and Montecito. The fire was 15 percent contained as of 7 a.m. Dec. 11, according to Cal Fire, with 18,000 structures still in danger.
Nearly 800 structures have been destroyed, including 644 homes, mostly in Ventura. About 6,400 firefighters are batting the blaze using 856 fire engines, 48 water tenders and 27 helicopters. The cost of the firefighting effort is $38.4 million so far.
At a community meeting at San Marcos High School on Dec. 10, Santa Barbara Fire Chief Pat McElroy said the goal was to halt the westward movement of the mammoth blaze before it reaches areas that burned in past fires.
“We are hoping to stop it before it gets to Highway 154,” said McElroy, who will be retiring in March.
He said the public’s cooperation is key.
“Santa Barbara is an extremely fire wise community,” he said.
About 300 people attended the community meeting, including Congressman Salud Carbajal, State Sen. Hannah Beth-Jackson, Assembly member Monique Limon and Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider.
Brendan Ripley, a Ventura County fire captain who has been working on the fire, said the large fire plumes are an indication that the fire is so intense that “it is creating its own weather” with winds that are highly unpredictable.
The blaze has spread smoke and ash throughout the region, creating unhealthy air quality across the Tri-Counties.
Dr. Charity Dean, who oversees the Santa Barbara County Health Department, said that poor air quality is a serious health hazard that will likely continue for days.
She recommended that anyone who must go outdoors wear N-95 masks, which can block small particles that are invisible to the naked eye. She said kids and the elderly are especially vulnerable and that it is important to clean up after the fire without creating more flying ash.
“Use a wet rag to clear dust” from furniture and home furnishings, she said. The goal is to prevent more dust from getting into the air during the cleanup process.
Updated at 4 p.m. Dec. 8:
Highways 101 and 33, which were closed due to the Thomas fire, both reopened Dec. 8, allowing cars to flow between Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and some traffic back into Ojai.
However, Amtrak canceled service between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, and said the shutdown could result in further delays and cancellations.
Mandatory evacuations were updated to include areas of Highway 192 and Highway 150, Casitas Pass Road and East Camino Cielo. Residents between Highway 101, Toro Canyon Road, East Camino Cielo and Highway 150 were also advised to evacuate.
Several hotels in Santa Barbara announced that they would offer discounted rates to first responders and those impacted by the fires.
Donations have started to pour in for victims of the Thomas fire, even as Tri-County nonprofits put out calls for volunteers and supplies.
The Ventura County Community Foundation awarded $477,000 to the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army to provide food, supplies and staffing for shelters.
It also established the Sudden and Urgent Needs fund and the Community Disaster Relief fund, which are currently accepting community contributions.
Rotary club members in the area also created a third fund at the VCCF, which garnered thousands of dollars in donations from Rotarians in a matter of hours.
The United Way had also established a Thomas Fire Fund in conjunction with the Red Cross and the Ventura County Office of Emergency Services, and the Annenberg Foundation quickly pledged $400,000 toward the fund’s $1 million goal.
After quick responses to both the wine country fires in Northern California and Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Direct Relief delivered respiratory masks and albuterol inhalers to Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics and others affected by persistently poor air quality from smoke and ash. Air quality warnings remained in effect through the weekend, advising residents to stay inside.
Those interested in volunteering or donating can visit Direct Relief’s website and Facebook page for upcoming events, said Digital Content Editor Lara Cooper.
“Seeing these fires on a local scale is a vivid reminder of the suffering and displacement disasters can have on communities,” she told the Business Times in an email.
The Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau compiled a list of organizations in need.
The Red Cross is actively seeking volunteers to man phones and staff evacuation centers — primarily at the Oxnard College, UC Santa Barbara and Ventura County Fairgrounds sites. Donations of cash were preferred to clothes and goods, the organization said.
Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club was looking for volunteers to help feed, water and clean up after horses that had been evacuated to the area, and the Humane Society of Ventura County had set up a wish list of items it needed to care for more than 300 animals it had taken in since Monday. Volunteers were also needed to pack, sort and deliver food at the Santa Barbara County Food Bank.
In Thousand Oaks, the Sports Academy offered complimentary cryotherapy and recovery for all first responders until the fires are under control. Kids from age 2 through fifth grade whose families were impacted can also take part in youth camps for free from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Agricultural areas in the burn zone are still being treated as an active fire, so access is limited and it’s difficult to determine the extent of losses among farms and rangeland, said Ventura County Farm Bureau CEO John Krist. Additionally, some orchards might not show signs of damage for weeks, so “it’s going to take a while to get a full accounting.”
In Ojai, citrus, olive and grape plantings were at risk, and damage to avocado trees from wind “may end up being as significant a loss as from the fire itself,” Krist said. Even Moorpark and other areas of East Ventura County saw damage from the 60-80 mph winds this week.
Farmers throughout the region should be cautious when crews are in fields, he said, since the poor air quality could be a hazard to workers’ health.
Employees at Camarillo internet service provider GeoLinks were out fighting fires themselves to protect equipment in remote areas, said CEO Skyler Ditchfield.
A handful of sites burned or melted near Ojai and Ventura, Ditchfield said, but internet service was back up for most customers within 24 hours, using battery systems and generators.
A few employees had to use chains to pull fallen trees and telephone poles out of their path when they were trapped by the flames, he said.
Others were also forced to evacuate and came to the company’s headquarters for shelter and to respond to customers.
“They’ve just been doing remarkable work to keep things up and running,” said Chief Operating Officer Ryan Adams. “They understand that as a community we need to come together. It’s not just the network but our people as well that have been affected by this.”
Updated at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 8:
The Thomas fire, which grew to 132,000 acres on Dec. 8, was wrapped around the city of Ojai and was being pushed north and west into the Los Padres National Forest and toward the city of Carpinteria.
As of 11:30 a.m., 401 structures had been destroyed and an additional 81 were damaged, with the fire at 10 percent containment. Firefighters have been able to direct the blaze around Ojai and established a strong fire line surrounding Lake Casitas, but another 15,000 structures were still at risk.
“We’ve successfully kept the fire out of the city proper in Ojai,” said Rich Macklin, public information officer for the Ventura County Fire Department, but some homes and infrastructure had been damaged. At Lake Casitas, “We’re confident we’ll able to hold that line today. If the winds continue, all bets are off, but firefighters are confident they can hold that line.”
The region is currently in a “diminishing Santa Ana event,” he said, though winds are expected to pick up this afternoon and could shift back to the northeast. Crews are able to use all of their air resources, including fixed wing aircraft.
More than 2,500 fire and emergency response personnel had responded to the incident, but cost estimates for firefighting efforts were still unavailable until further containment has been accomplished. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Macklin stressed that residents in the affected areas should prepare to evacuate and move to safety early to allow emergency crews access for structural protection.
Updated at 12:45 p.m. Dec. 7:
Air quality in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties reached hazardous levels on Dec. 7 as the Thomas fire continued to rage out of control.
Heavy smoke and falling ash from the blaze, which has burned more than 96,000 acres so far, caused schools and many businesses to close to protect students and employees from exposure.
“We had to close up because of the air quality. We were wearing particle masks and even with them on, we could not work,” said Matt Semonish, production manager at Prestigious Auto Body in Goleta.
With winds blowing the smoke and ash north and west, the air quality index for Santa Barbara County showed the level of particulate matter in the air at 10:30 a.m. was more than three times higher than the federal health standard and was deemed hazardous by the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District.
Free particle masks were being distributed Dec. 7 at Costco in Goleta, 7095 Market Place Drive; Franklin Community Center, 1136 E. Montecito St.; Carpinteria City Hall, 5775 Carpinteria Ave.; and the Santa Barbara Police Department, 215 E. Figueroa St.
Highway 101 was closed between Ventura and Carpinteria early Dec. 7 but southbound lanes later reopened. Northbound lanes remain closed with the California Highway Patrol allowing some traffic to proceed with an escort. Portions of Highway 150 and State Route 33 also remain closed.
The Thomas fire, which began Dec. 4 near Santa Paula and burned through Ventura to the Pacific Ocean, spread toward Carpinteria late Dec. 6, prompting mandatory evacuations there. About 50,000 people have been evacuated from 15,000 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties thus far.
More than 111 structures have been destroyed since the start of the fire, according to Cal Fire, and more than 15,000 structures are currently threatened. One body has been found in a burn area near Ojai.
Approximately 6,300 Southern California Edison customers are still without power and the utility said transmission lines will continue to be threatened as the fire burns. More than 2,500 fire fighters are battling the blaze.
As of press time Dec. 6:
A rapidly growing wildfire in Ventura County was out of control at press time Dec. 6, burning 65,000 acres in less than three days, threatening 12,000 structures and an estimated $2.5 billion in agriculture, oil and gas, housing and other infrastructure.
Driven by winds in excess of 60 mph, the Thomas fire started late Dec. 4 near Santa Paula and prompted mandatory evacuations of at least 27,000 residents in parts of Ventura, Santa Paula and Ojai. Sections of Highways 33 and 150 closed, and the fire spread to Highway 101 late Dec. 5.
At least 150 structures had been destroyed by press time Dec. 6, including the Vista del Mar Hospital and the Hawaiian Village Apartments, with fire officials expecting that number to grow as they are able to get into fire-ravaged neighborhoods to assess the damage.
Several prominent members of the Ventura County business community reportedly lost their homes, including Nan Drake, chair of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce and public relations director for EJ Harrison & Sons; Scott Hansen, head of private banking for Wells Fargo and chair of the Ventura County Community Foundation; and Barbara Brown, founder of BBM&D Strategic Branding and president of the Ventura Botanical Gardens.
Heavy winds made it unsafe for pilots to drop water using fixed wing aircraft and helicopters for most of the day Dec. 5, said Andrew Madsen, a spokesman for Cal Fire. At press time, more than 1,700 personnel had been deployed, as well as 362 fire engines, 19 bulldozers and 4 water tenders, and the fire was still zero percent contained at press time Dec. 6.
Additional resources had been requested under a unified command with the Los Padres National Forest, Cal Fire, the Ventura County Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office and the City of Ventura. Cost estimates for fighting the fire were not available.
“The good news is there are no other areas of the country that are experiencing this type of wildfire activity, so all the resources that are requested will be available for this,” Madsen said. “Basically, a full complement of our fire suppression resources is on hand down there.”
Around 2,000 acres were inside the Los Padres forest boundary, but a majority of the blaze threatened homes in Santa Paula and Ventura. The Rye and Creek fires burned more than 18,000 acres in Los Angeles County and were around 5 percent contained at press time.
“We were prepared, knowing that the forecast was for Santa Ana winds this year,” Madsen said. “Some of the winds were more sustained this December than we have seen in the last 10 years. The next few days will be telling in terms of how strong winds are that we get and the duration of those winds.”
More than 27,000 people evacuated in the first 12 hours of the disaster, and Southern California Edison reported that approximately 180,000 homes were affected by power outages. The company said more than 43,000 customers throughout its territory were still without power as of Dec. 6.
“We’re rerouting where we can,” an SCE spokesperson told the Business Times. “Since we still have an active fire, it’s hard to predict where and how these fires are going to move.”
The California Independent System Operator declared a local transmission emergency when critical transmission lines bringing power into the region were damaged. SCE said that, based on the location of where the fire started, there was no indication that it was caused by the company’s equipment.
One of those affected customers was avocado distributor Calavo Growers, whose administrative staff worked remotely while its Santa Paula headquarters was in a days-long blackout. Nearby lemon and avocado producer Limoneira also experienced damage to trees and homes.
“In the last 36 hours, we’ve had from the fire various tree damage, not a whole lot, maybe a few acres here and a few acres there,” said Limoneira Senior Vice President Alex Teague. “Of larger concern, we lost a few mobile homes. Everybody was OK. That’s what we’re most pleased about, that nobody was hurt.”
Pipes for irrigation received internal damage, and winds caused some avocadoes to drop and impacted lemon trees, but the full extent of the losses are difficult to assess yet, Teague said. After 24 hours of downtime, operations at the company’s packinghouse were back up and running.
“I grew up in this area, been on and off 54 years, and I’ve never seen a fire move this quickly,” Teague said. “When people say is it contained, I’d say you bet, because there’s nothing else to burn. We feel for all our neighbors in Ventura that lost their homes, and hopefully as a community we can come together and help them out.”
Fires also swept through rangeland, including 6,500 acres owned by Mike Williams, second vice president of the California Cattlemen’s Association.
“It’s pretty devastating when you make your living off the grass, when the grass burns up,” Williams said, but added that “we’ll be alright. There were a lot of people who had it worse.”
Ranchers said they were frequently forced to make the decision to stay and try to protect their property or attempt to find transportation for their livestock.
With more than 300 head of cattle, “it wasn’t an option for us,” Williams said. “We had to take care of those animals, and we had a plan to do it as safely as possible for the people and animals.”
Chris Sayer, who grows citrus in Santa Paula and Saticoy, said the Thomas fire caused no damage to his ranches.
“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve lost nothing but sleep so far,” said Sayer. “We’re just upwind of where the Thomas fire started, and now we have to look the other way to where the Rye fire started. This is going to be one of the historically bad ones.”
School districts throughout the county announced closures during the emergency, including Ventura College’s two locations, which were in close proximity to the blaze and experienced intermittent power outages. Oxnard College partnered with the Red Cross to provide shelter for evacuees, and other area fires were being monitored for their proximity to Moorpark College.
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency Dec. 5, mobilizing the state Office of Emergency Services and other resources to combat it.
“This fire is very dangerous and spreading rapidly, but we’ll continue to attack it with all we’ve got,” Brown said. “It’s critical residents stay ready and evacuate immediately if told to do so.”
In downtown Ventura, most businesses and streets remained closed after the fire approached City Hall.
One restaurant stayed open despite deserted sidewalks and winds that blew ash and soot from the nearby hills. Neighboring business owners were busily hosing down buildings and sidewalks as a safety precaution.
The manager of the Taj Cafe said he had just closed the restaurant and headed home on Dec. 4 to make himself a meal when the power went out and he was left without food. When he came back to check on the restaurant, he was turned away by firefighting personnel.
“That’s why I wanted to keep it open,” he said. “People need to eat.”