In the Aftermath of the Holiday Fire, a Community Picks Up the Pieces

Santa Barbara County Neighborhood Copes with Survival and Loss

Ron Akau swept up nails hidden in the ash and rubble that's left of his landlord's home after the Holiday Fire went through on July 6.
Paul Wellman

“Do you want to buy a car?” Larry Sleep joked on Monday morning, as he looked at the burned-out shell of his Toyota Land Cruiser, parked within yards of his home, which was still standing on North Fairview Avenue. His wife, Ruth Sleep, was busy cleaning the ash from her kitchen tools. All the succulents around the home looked like they’d melted from the Holiday Fire’s heat on Friday night, but the Sleeps had escaped to a friend’s home. The next morning, Larry said he saw his home in an aerial shot of North Fairview: “It was the most beautiful sight.”

Larry Sleep and what had been a Land Cruiser.
Paul Wellman

While fleeing the night before, Sleep said he’d knocked on a few neighbors’ doors to make sure they knew about the fire that was coming rapidly down Fairview. Two houses up the road were among the 13 that ended up burning to the ground that night, as well as one down the road, right next door. The family had been swimming in a hotel pool to escape the 100-degree heat when the fire broke out, said Amy Thoman. They only learned of it when one of their five kids, at a baseball game in Ventura, called because he’d heard a report of a fire on North Fairview.

Ruth and Larry Sleep marvel that their home still stands though the Holiday Fire swept behind their property, taking out houses to both sides of them.
Paul Wellman

The vagaries of brushfire were no more evident than at these two homes: Only the chimneys remained of the Thoman house, despite a broad expanse of mown yard and a wide concrete apron in front of the home. The house is on a piece of land that juts into the blackened eastside of the valley behind it. “All our baby pictures,” said Thoman tearfully, “their drawings from school and their handprints. We didn’t have a chance to save anything.”

The Thoman family's home seemed to have all the right stuff — lots of defensible space, stucco walls, and a tile roof — but the wind-driven Holiday Fire burned it to the ground along with an untold number of irreplaceable items.
Paul Wellman

The wooden stakes that marked off where a lap pool was to be built a few feet from the house were untouched by fire; maybe it was the dirt ditch between them that had made the difference, she speculated. Already Amy Thoman and her husband, David Thoman, were talking with architects and builders.

Farther up the road, Ron Akau was sweeping nails off the concrete drive in front of what had been his landlord’s house. Akau’s home in a metal building nearby was unscathed, but the main house was gone. The owners had spent the past year remodeling the house and re-landscaping, he said: “They had sprinklers going on the roof, too.” Scorched leaves marked the edges of the avocado orchard lying below the house.

This home on North Fairview Avenue had been renovated and re-landscaped before the fire.
Paul Wellman

The gas was shut off, Akau said, and the electricity cut shortly after the fire started. Crews from various utility and communications providers lined the roads. Edison has restored power to some, but 59 customers remained without electricity by day’s end.

Across from Holiday Hill Road, after which last Friday’s fire was named and where nary a home was harmed, Jim Hurnblad was making sure the generator at the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network had enough gas to keep the animal food and freezers cold. Blackened hills surrounded the compound, the air pungent with the all-too-familiar doused-fire smell. When he’d arrived around 9 p.m. on Friday night, firefighters were already parked inside, unsure of where the animals were but snuffing out the ornamental grasses that had caught fire.

The county knew about the wildlife housed at the property, said Hurnblad, who had been a volunteer firefighter in Yolo County. Even so, as he had rolled up Fairview toward the Wildlife Center that night, when the road disappeared under a smothering mass of smoke, the front of his F250 ran into a telephone pole.

Wildlife Care Network volunteer Jim Hurnblad points out where embers smoldered in a cage that held crows.
Paul Wellman

Though the grasses were burned down to stubs, the wooden cages just a foot away were entirely spared. Among the 200 animals in 20 or so enclosures, which all survived, a few birds, a squirrel, and an opossum known as Sweetie Pie had succumbed to the smoke and heat, Hurnblad said, visibly upset.

The Holiday Fire burned up to the Wildlife Care Network center and jumped inside in places, but firefighters held it back from the animals inside, saving 200 of them.

Paul Wellman

A few firefighters helped him net the pelicans and put them in transport cages. They then left quickly for other emergencies. Hurnblad kept getting the animals ready to move, putting out embers wind-blown to life in one of the crow cages as he did so. As the night wore on, he said he could hear a bulldozer working the neighboring hillside and helicopters making water drops. By midnight, 18 raccoons and baby raccoons, nearly 100 songbirds, and many pelicans, cormorants, squirrels, and tortoises were evacuated once volunteers and staff were able to drive up and move them to the Humane Society and volunteers’ homes. Hurnblad caught a ride as they left.

The top of Fairview was barricaded with caution tape, as fire and sheriff’s investigators continued to look into the cause of the Holiday Fire. Asked about the rumored eucalyptus branch contacting electrical lines, they all said they couldn’t say until after the investigation had gone through its paces.

Blinded by heavy smoke while coming up Fairview, Jim Hurnblad drove his truck into a telephone pole, but still managed to make it to the Wildlife Center and protect birds and animals not yet evacuated.
Paul Wellman


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