by Sheli Ellsworth
Ventura City Fire Department serves a population of over 110,000. They do so with six stations, ten engines, one truck company (hook and ladder) and seventy-three sworn firefighters in fire suppression. That is one firefighter for every fifteen hundred people.
On December 4, 2017, Ventura City Battalion Fire Chief Doug Miser was driving to Ojai to visit his girlfriend. He noticed a red glow in the distance over towards Santa Paula and was immediately worried. A fire alert appeared on his phone at 6:24 PM. Low humidity, sustained winds in excess of 40mph, temperatures in the 60s—and it was the first day of a 5-day Santa Ana wind event, the situation did not bode well. A six-year drought had left much of the county’s thickets and undergrowth dry as kindling.
By 6:30 PM, ten fire engines, two helicopters, two bull dozers and two airplanes and over a hundred fireman had been dispatched to what has become known as the Thomas Fire. By 8:30 PM almost all available off duty city fire department personnel were either showing up at stations or were on their way in. Less than an hour into the incident, 50 strike teams consisting of over 200 engines were requested from neighboring counties. “Spot fires immediately sprang up downwind from the initial blaze. Driven by 50 mph winds blowing toward the ocean, it didn’t take long for spot fires to cause their own ancillary fires and take hold near Ventura.” Miser says the fires consumed the parched boscage at about an acre per minute. Some of the engine companies initially placed into Santa Paula were quickly relocated closer to Ventura’s urban interface as the fire leapt from one ridge to another, leaving unburned valleys to be consumed later. With very few resources, it became readily apparent that evacuation would be top priority, fire-fighters began knocking on doors and using their public address systems telling people to leave, helping people move cars, carrying the disabled out of homes. “There is always a life-before-property obligation all emergency responders have.”
At 10:00 PM, Miser, who has over 20-years of experience as a fireman, began evacuations in Ventura Heights. “The Police and Fire units were going through neighborhoods and announced on the PA system—telling people to evacuate immediately. The recurring problem was that people went to bed knowing there was a fire in Santa Paula, no one thought it would be in Ventura in a manner of hours.”
As if the pressing problem wasn’t enough, at 11:20 PM a 50-acre fire erupted in Grant Park which became known as the Cedar Incident. “Even though Grant Park is six miles away from the High Point area that was about to get the first wave of the fire about that time, it was obvious spot fires were fueling spot fires that were fueling spot fires—the fire essentially hopscotched across the Ventura back oilfields in a matter of minutes.”
For the next 39 days, 8,500 fire fighters fought fires that had burned everything from Santa Paula to Ventura City, through Ojai and up into Santa Barbara, becoming the largest fire in California History, until this year. The fire eventually destroyed 440 square miles and 504 homes in the city of Ventura, according to the damage assessment report. An additional 140 were damaged.
“We were able to save many structures, but obviously lost many as well. We tragically lost one of our brothers, Cory Iverson who worked for Cal Fire 10 days after the start of the fire, which is when things usually begin to become manageable as far as wild-land incidents go. This fire, fueled by an unusually long Santa Ana event, would not quit, and consumed everything in its path. I think every firefighter I know remarked how blessed we were that no civilian fatalities happened in Ventura that first night. Given the degree of chaos and rapid pace of the fire, it was the silver lining of it all.”