I was working at home on my computer when the lights flickered on and off, just for a second, and then suddenly the room went dark, now the glow of my laptop the only thing illuminating our living room.I stepped onto the balcony of our second floor apartment. The city of Santa Barbara, as it always does, sat in my view, blocked only partially by a few tall palm trees and the apartment building across the alley. That night, the windows of the houses and apartments and businesses weren’t aglow in the late evening. Almost the entire city, barring a few homes far in the hills and the traffic lights blinking red and yellow and green, was blacked out. As is now nearly a habit for me, whenever noteworthy events are just unfolding, I took to Twitter to find out what happened, typing “Santa Barbara” into the search bar and scanning for any recent mentions of power outages.
Many others had the same idea and expressed their confusion on the social media website, questioning why the power was out throughout not just Santa Barbara, but also neighboring towns. I got a hint a few minutes later when I found someone who posted about what they had called the “Thomas Fire” just outside Ventura. That was over two weeks ago, and since then the Thomas Fire has grown. It’s grown from something only mentioned a few times on social media to making international news, but more literally, it quickly grew from an undetermined source of heat and fuel in a small wooded town on the southern coast of California to a massive disaster that destroyed or damaged over 1000 homes and businesses.
There was nothing noticeably alarming that first night in Santa Barbara, aside from a few hours of lost power while many residents were sleeping. However, just a few miles down the coast, thousands of people were in immediate danger. Homes were evacuated; some burned overnight. That first night saw over half of the total structure casualty of the forest fire. For those of us awake and far enough away, the power kept flickering on and off: 10 minutes off, 20 minutes on, 1 hour off, 10 minutes on, repeat, randomly. My laptop battery died during one of the longer outages, and so I decided to leave home and see what the beaches of Santa Barbara looked like at night, the starry skies no longer washed out by light pollution from below.
On the beach, an orange glow was visible in the mountains across the water. It wasn’t the typical orange glow from city lights; it was diffuse and isolated, and a dark cloud billowed into the sky. The smoke was low in the air across the water, letting light from bright stars above to pass through. That was the beginning of the now-massive wildfire that would devour forests and brush, homes and businesses. At that time, it was so distant to us, and my thought was that it was just eating up forest. Never did I imagine whatever panic and chaos was actually happening as people had to flee their homes, some without time to grab cherished photographs and irreplaceable art. Some had no place to go, taking refuge in various shelters that quickly opened up in the county.
Over the next few days, smoke and ash filled the air and choked the city. The smell of a campfire is nice when paired with the memories of s’mores and stories, but it weighs heavy in your lungs when it’s all around day and night. The fire took its first victim when Virginia Pesola of Santa Paula crashed her car while evacuating. Injured and disoriented, stuck in the middle of flames, she couldn’t make it out. Strong winds pushed the fire toward Santa Barbara. It burned about an acre per second on the worst days. I kept thinking it wouldn’t get much worse, that we would be okay, and that it wouldn’t take much time to contain. Nothing prompted my positive outlook; no knowledge of wind patterns or air humidity or the way forest fires burn or the landscape that it had to cross. It was just simple, naïve optimism.
The fire did get worse though, and so did the air. In an online comments section discussing the fire, someone told a story about a woman who died in the aftermath of 9/11. She was Marcy Borders, dubbed “Dust Lady” after her image spread quickly across the internet. The iconic image shows Ms. Borders dressed professionally – nice shoes, dress, earrings, necklace, all perfectly normal for a young, professional in New York City except that she is almost completely covered in white dust. It’s hard to tell if her dress has sleeves, if her hands are covered by gloves, or covered by dust. With the collapse of the towers, building material was pulverized and all the additives and impurities were flying through the air. Particulates that aren’t much bigger than the thickness of a single strand of hair, composed of toxic metals like cadmium or lead and dangerous fibers like asbestos, were breathed in by anyone around, including Ms. Borders. She died from stomach cancer in 2015 at the age of 42; with no history of poor health, she attributed the cancer to her exposure.
Our air was nowhere near as bad as Ground Zero in New York City, of course, with the building material diluted by burning trees and bushes. Still, anything small enough might get trapped in your lungs. Public health officials rated the relative amount of tiny particulates in the air as hazardous and advised people to just avoid going outside at all. Even if the chance was small, it felt worth it to be cautious. The power outages and poor air led to restless dogs and restless humans in our apartment. The fire was also growing closer. Parts of Santa Barbara were now in the evacuation zone. Just about one week after the fire started, when just the glow was visible from the beach, the fire had moved to the hills above our small coastal city and could now be seen from our apartment balcony. My boss’s house was placed under evacuation that night. He called and asked if we could help: he had booked a flight out of town but would need to leave his dog. We offered to help, and he encouraged us to leave if we had somewhere else to go. We have family in the central valley of California, and so we headed that way the next day.
I grew up in the central valley of California and know that it isn’t the first place most people think of when the topic of fresh air comes to mind. But it was a great relief when Kierstin and I threw off our N95 particulate masks and opened the car windows for that first breath of fresh air that we had in a few days. We felt lucky to have the option to escape. Others didn’t necessarily have a choice. The days before we left town, I’d been trying to visit Men’s Warehouse in Santa Barbara to pick up a suit for a wedding at the end of this year. Each day I went a handwritten note was taped on the door: “Due to air quality and power outages, we will not be open today. We will open tomorrow at 10 am.” I came back the next day, and a similar note had been posted. While frustrating for me, I imagined how the employees must feel. They don’t have much say in the matter, but still have to be ready to work if their bosses decide to open the store. Hourly employees were stuck in Santa Barbara, some waiting to know whether or not they were actually working. Those without families in California or a convenient way to reach them were stuck in Santa Barbara. Doctors, police officers, postal workers, public health officials, firefighters (especially), providing services to keep others day to day lives running, all were stuck in Santa Barbara.
We kept up-to-date with the fire’s progress when we were out of town. I learned a lot about satellite fire maps, wind and humidity, and fire containment. The fire kept growing, going from the 19th largest when news outlets first began reporting its size ranking in CA history to now, just today, the largest ever. After we left, the fire killed another; this time, a firefighter by the name of Cory Iverson. It was heartbreaking to learn about Mr. Iverson, a young father who came up from San Diego to help our county and now leaves behind a child and his pregnant wife. The work that the firefighters have been doing has been amazing. They’ve protected structures and lives, working long shifts and overnight in sweltering heat and choking smoke. They’ve come from across the country to keep us safe, and we really appreciate their work. It’s been a long two weeks for us, but it’s been even longer for them. Just earlier this week, the threat of the fire was declared terminated. But embers still burn, and firefighters still toil to keep perimeters held. Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland, Carpinteria all get to go home for the holidays. Let’s hope we don’t forget the firefighters who are still battling.
Last night, 17 days after that first night, my grandpa and I were talking about the fire. I didn’t think I had a direct connection to anyone who lost anything. As it turns out, there’s a long chain (grandpa’s brother’s wife’s twin) that connects me and someone who lost their home. He pointed around his own home. It’s about the things inside, he told me. The house itself, it’s expensive, but it can be rebuilt. The memories that people have made, and how they honor those memories with souvenirs, art, and photographs can’t be replaced. Many of the people who lost their home knew the possible dangers of forest fires and hopefully had insurance. There are probably a few, though, who this sentiment doesn’t apply to. There are probably a handful who now have nothing, and many who now have nowhere to go for the holidays. This is the time of year where thinking about the plight of others hits the hardest. This year, it’s literally close to home.
The United Way is taking donations; 100% of proceeds will go toward helping victims of the Thomas Fire. Click here if you wish to help.