The Thomas Fire, which continues to burn through Ventura’s inland forests, is now the largest wildfire ever recorded in California. As of now, the wildfire has burned over 273,000 acres, consumed over one thousand buildings, and caused one fatality. Consuming as much as 60,000 acres a day during its first few weeks of existence, the Thomas fire is now spreading at a much lower rate of approximately one thousand acres a day. According to fire department officials, the fire is now largely contained and is expected to be fully contained by January 8th. Air quality has improved in many regions, and many businesses in Santa Barbara and Ventura have begun to reopen as increasing numbers of people begin to leave their homes and come outside.
Recent wildfires of this scale include the Soberanes fire (Monterey) in 2016 and the Rim fire (Tuolumne) in 2013. The second largest fire recorded in the state occurred in October/November of 2003, when persistent, strong gusts spread a signal fire ignited by a lost hunter in the Cleveland National Forest of San Diego.
The Thomas Fire began the afternoon of December 4th near Santa Paula in the foothills above Thomas Aquinas College, and spread quickly during its first few days with the assistance of powerful, oceanward blowing Santa Ana winds. These offshore winds- typically seen as a godsend by SoCal surfers for their tendency to smoothen and hollow out pitching waves- are generated hundreds of miles from the coast when high pressure builds over the Great Basin and pushes air downslope and westward. This air travels quickly through deserts, where it becomes dry and warm before arriving at the coast.
Smoke from the Thomas fire, as well as the threat of fast moving blazes fueled by strong winds, resulted in thousands of mandatory evacuations in regions of Ojai, Ventura, and Santa Barbara. Poor air quality and road closures also prompted the closure of many schools and businesses near the blaze.
Smoke could be seen hundreds of miles from its source, making the fire’s presence widely known throughout the state. An orange hue in the sky was often present during the daytime, and the sun set early behind a horizon of smoke.
As surfers along the affected coast return to the ocean, they will be greeted by a grim backdrop. The scarred landscape of Ventura/Santa Barbara’s mountains and hills will long act as a reminder of the peril that can come from the Santa Ana winds…
words and images by Braden Zischke