Life in the Thomas Fire Smoke

No Fun for Anyone When School Closes Early Due to a Natural Disaster

Smoke from the Thomas Fire started choking up Santa Barbara skies in the opening days of the blaze.
Paul Wellman

Getting out more than a week earlier than expected for Christmas break certainly sounds awesome. But in reality, it’s no fun for anyone, especially for working parents of elementary school kids such as myself ​— ​and when no one’s allowed to go outside, something is bound to pop.

The first day that school was closed due to the smoke and ash of the Thomas Fire was last Thursday, and ours turned out pretty sweet. My wife took her first of a few partial sick days, and we brought our 5-year-old daughter and nearly 8-year-old son to wine country, where I had a couple of appointments. There was no smoke to choke on, at least for a while ​— ​never mind that tiny brush fire that broke out near the 154 and 101 ​— ​and the kids got to ride on an ATV and in the back of a pickup truck, certainly the highlights of their season. My wife didn’t mind the sparkling wine at lunch either.

The author and his wee laddie
Matt Kettmann

Day two, however, with my son starting to hack and the smoke growing more oppressive, felt less like a holiday ​— ​kids this age are in school for good reason; their brains and bodies need both steady intake and constant exercise. When my wife went to her office, I quickly remembered why working at home with the kids is a negative sum game ​— ​I start yelling at them as soon as they’re having (increasingly loud) fun; the work stalls; no one is happy (unless iPads come out). And with outdoor activities not an option, the contained kid energy boils over rapidly.

Though not cheap, babysitters ease the work-childcare tensions, and the first of many came for two hours on Friday morning. When she left, I turned on the TV and put a holiday movie on for the kids to watch until my wife came home from work midday. Then came the group-entertainment efforts of similarly smoke-addled friends and their kids for dinner. By Saturday, we were deep in sitters. One came during the day while my wife went downtown for masks and I worked at home, rather than putting up Christmas lights in the haze. A second came at night, so we could escape for some grown-up fun, complete with gas-mask photos and jokes about the wrong sort of white Christmas.

Come Sunday, after the flames actually entered Santa Barbara County, a sprinkling of family-wide fear spiced up the scene. (That middle-of-the-night, erroneous “everyone must evacuate” message from the county didn’t help, though it did lead to some great 2:45 a.m. text message banter among similarly freaked-out friends.) We turned our TV to KEYT around 6 a.m., and it didn’t go off all day. Power outages closed attractive indoor options like Zodo’s, and the smoke was bad everywhere worth a day trip ​— ​except south, but I didn’t want to risk getting cut out of town if the fire closed 101 again.

A partnership between Direct Relief, the and the Santa Barbara County Medical Reserve Corp made N95 masks available to the public at four locations Friday at Costco in Goleta, Franklin Community Center (pictured), Albertson's in Carpinteria and the Lower Village in Montecito. (Dec. 8, 2017)
Paul Wellman

As the fire raged westward, no longer did my “zero percent” claims that we wouldn’t be evacuated seem so bulletproof (but living in the flats near Patterson Road and 101, I confidently upgraded my prediction to a mere 2 percent, and I’m sticking by it). Suddenly, we weren’t just balancing workloads and childcare within the confines of the less-than-great indoors; we were also navigating the legitimate safety concerns of our anxious kids, whose already constrained play was now laced with newfound knowledge about the difference between mandatory evacuation areas and voluntary evacuation zones and scenes of helicopters flying into the flames. Buying a Christmas tree and then a sushi dinner seemed like the right calls, gas masks and all.

That night, we learned school was done for the month ​— ​sitter scramble commence! ​— ​and by Monday morning, I was snapping at the kids for quite literally bouncing off the walls. We started feeling like we were the last of our friends with young kids left in town and, as of Wednesday morning, that remains largely the case.

My daughter’s long-awaited dance performance this weekend was just canceled, as was vintner Fred Brander’s epic best-100-wines-of-the-year party ​— ​two more casualties of a smoke-choked two weeks. There’s an oddly poetic feeling in living amid these apocalyptic scenes of masks on State Street, ash flurries in the cul-de-sac, and orange glows in the nearby mountains. But mostly, it’s just annoying.

Please go away, Thomas Fire, and take your smoke and ash with you. My kids wanna go outside to play.


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