Yule Dogs Roasting on the Thomas Fire

To All You Ash Kickers, Many Thanks

The Thomas Fire burns in the foothills of Montecito pre-dawn Saturday. (Dec. 16, 2017)
Paul Wellman

I could be a scrooge and join the “bah humbug” brigade, but what would be the point? Besides, I am seriously dreaming of a white Christmas. If that “white” happens to be the hundreds of cubic tons of ash and other incinerated dandruff snowing down from the Thomas Fire, so be it. As bad as that is — coughing and hacking have now become Santa Barbara’s official background music — it beats the alternative: great balls of fire and a charred landscape. That there is only a handful of shopping days left before Christmas seems almost beside the point. But only almost. Now is the time to indulge. Now is the time to reconnect with your Judeo-Christian-pagan-Yiddish-Teutonic roots and celebrate.

It should be remembered that the original St. Nick was a thin-faced, bad-ass fourth-century Turkish monk who managed to bring several young kids back from the dead after they’d already been served up for dinner by an unscrupulous innkeeper as the second coming of veal cutlets. Most famously, St. Nick also saved several destitute young girls from a life of prostitution by providing them “gifts.” For centuries, this gift-giving tradition of Christmas was observed on his Feast Day, December 6. But when Martin Luther ​— ​whose hatred of the saints as manifestations of false deities ​is well documented — ​led the Protestant uprising against the Pope, feast days were obliterated. The gift-giving tradition was then eventually moved to December 25, on which date biblical scholars agree the baby Jesus was most definitely not born. And a few centuries later, the definitive Christmas song and top-selling single of all time ​— ​“White Christmas” ​— ​would be written by a nice Jewish boy from Russia named Irving Berlin.

All that’s to say to all you last-second Christmas shoppers, stay off the internet. Buy Local. Last I looked, Jeff Bezos does not look remotely like St. Nick: How many cannibalized children has he brought back to life? So boycott Amazon.com, at least for now. Find some locally owned mom-’n’-pop store and support them. You’ll feel better in the long term, but they’ll feel much better in the short term.

And naturally, you’ll want to buy a drink for one of the more than 8,000 firefighters who saved our sorry asses from what will become the biggest fire in the history of California, though I do need to add a few asterisks to our “We’re Number One” fixation. (The previous biggest fire ​— ​the Rush Fire of 2012 ​— ​was really 315,577 acres, but only the 271,911 in California are counted. The record books go back only to 1932, so the Santiago Canyon Fire of 1889, which destroyed 300,000 acres in San Diego, Orange, and Riverside counties, was not included.) If the line’s too long at Harry’s or Joe’s ​— ​which firefighters have been known to frequent ​— ​go somewhere else, and buy yourself and a loved one a drink. But be sure to toast the firefighters.

That around 8,000 people from 17 states can descend en masse on one spot, dance together in a life-threatening cha-cha line, and save the day is nothing short of miraculous. As great as they are, I hope they go away soon and never have to come back. But given the abundance of unburned fuel in the backcountry, wind, and drought, we’ll soon be on a first-name basis with all 8,000. Typically at this time of year, we would have had 3.5 inches of rain. To date, we have had only .32 inches. It’s been more than 250 days since we’ve gotten as much as .1 inch. For the record, that makes this the second-driest fall ever. And this is the year after our seven-year drought. That helps explain how a fire that started 44 miles away in distant Santa Paula could jump Highway 33, Highway 150, and Toro Canyon and get all the way to Gibraltar Road. It’s a brave new world.

I’d also like to say thanks to John Palminteri, Alys Martinez, and the whole crew at KEYT. They did what a local TV station is supposed to do, and then they went above and beyond the call of duty. When the winds were roaring down the mountains at 65 miles an hour and sane people were ducking for cover, John and Alys were in front of the camera, telling us and showing us what was happening. Palminteri’s ability to speak nonstop without ever drawing a breath has always been astonishing, but that’s come to be expected from a guy who sleeps in NASCAR pajamas with a police scanner tucked under his pillow. It’s his detailed knowledge and cool in the face of impending doom that’s both reassuring and invaluable. Martinez may not have mastered Palminteri’s art of circular breathing, but she more than held her own. Without camera operator extraordinaire Oscar Flores, however, none of their work could have gotten to us, so thank you, thank you, thank you. While KEYT provided viewers a firehose of nonstop information, Lance Orozco and radio station KCLU delivered what we needed to know in a shot glass. Lance managed to be everywhere all the time, but gave it to us short and sweet with his signature staccato style. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I’d be criminally remiss not to mention Indy photographer, the human billy goat, Paul Wellman, who left the rest of us in the ash, and Digital Editor Brandon Yadegari, who kept the Indy’s insatiable Facebook page and website feed going with fresh fire maps, evacuation maps, live-stream press briefings, and Wellman videos.

To be fair, there are countless others whose song I should be singing for their work in the Thomas Fire. These are only the ones I managed to get to. In the meantime, if the winds blow right, we’ll dodge another bullet and soon be singing “Blue Skies” rather than “White Christmas.” Guess what? Irving Berlin happened to write that one too.


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