Ethan Turpin always feels the itch this time of year to get out in the field. As a Santa Barbara video artist and documentarian who collaborates with scientists to study wildfire, every day spent at the office is a day he could have been in forests or on mountains collecting valuable footage.
So when the massive Dixie Fire ignited last month ― burning 740,000 acres and counting, leveling the town of Greenville, and threatening dozens of communities ― he prepared for another grim but important assignment. “It’s a historic event I wanted to have some perspective on,” he said.
Turpin recently returned from a four-day trip north, where he embedded with a Santa Barbara County fire crew ― the 20-member Strike Team Charley ― and tested new equipment, including a fireproof camera box he set directly in the path of the blaze. The film was the first he’s captured at night and in a conifer forest (as opposed to Central Coast chaparral) and is part of a growing collection he shares with a U.S. Forest Service fire behavior assessment team.
After a 10-hour drive and an uncomfortable night in his truck at a rest stop, Turpin rendezvoused Sunday with the Santa Barbara team, one of many local crews dispatched to help with the colossal containment effort that’s drawn 5,800 personnel from around the state. Temperatures at the time were nearing 100 degrees with winds blowing 25 mph. The sheer scope of the inferno, now nearly three times the size of the Thomas Fire, is difficult to imagine, Turpin said. “It’s a multi-headed beast,” he said, “with claws stretching north and east across entire mountain ranges.”
Credit: Ethan Turpin
Strike Team Charley had been assigned to protect Westwood, an old logging town of 1,600 residents not dissimilar to Greenville. Established in 1913 as the operations center for the Red River Lumber Company, Westwood’s homes and businesses were constructed with wooden slats and shake roofs, “way before people thought about fire building codes,” Turpin explained. Westwood would later become the birthplace of modern Paul Bunyan folklore, with a lumber company copywriter the first to name the blue ox “Babe” and depict Bunyan ― previously just a very big man ― in impossibly tall proportions.
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Most of Charley had already been stationed there a week. Some even longer. They worked 16-hour days with eight hours to “sleep,” though much of that time was spent commuting back and forth to their motel in Reno. “They’re exhausted,” Turpin said. Any spare moment the team got ― whether it was waiting for a dozer or a new set of orders ― they’d drop to the ground on their packs and steal a few minutes of rest, immediately snapping back to action when duty called.
The crew was conducting a series of back-burns, setting small and controllable fires at the base of slopes that would slowly climb and consume fuel before the beast could reach their location and roar down the mountain. Their line was just three miles from Westwood. They worked mainly at night, when the weather was cooler and calmer, and at the time were trading point and support positions with a hotshot crew from the Zuni Indian Reservation in New Mexico.
Battalion Chief Adam Estabrook led the strike team and talked openly with Turpin about how poor forest management and global warming are contributing to California’s ever-growing fire seasons. The conversation was noteworthy, as firefighters are typically loath to wade into policy debates. But that’s starting to change.
“He really thinks climate change is an important force that people need to talk about,” Turpin said. “He’s seen it with his own eyes.” Early in his career, Estabrook had looked up to Turpin’s late father, Bill, a 31-year county firefighter, who served on the infamous Painted Cave Fire, which reached 5,000 acres and was at the time a career-defining event. Now, firefighters are battling blazes that are many orders of magnitude larger and are doing so on a much more regular basis. As tough and brave as they are, Turpin said, “These guys get burnt out.”
As of press time, it appears Charley’s efforts have paid off. Westwood has been spared and evacuation orders lifted. The fire got to within a mile of town and left a burn scar that nearly boxed it in. As Turpin headed back for Santa Barbara, the fire crews were chasing the Dixie Fire down Highway 395, trying to stop its southern advance. All along the way, commanders were deciding which houses and ranches had defensible space where they could safely take a stand. All along the way, commanders were deciding which houses and ranches to protect, and which ones were too far out of reach. So far, 1,262 structures have been destroyed, including 679 homes.
“When I’m out on fires, I often see homes that really could have been made safer with preparations,” said Turpin, who’s made videos on defensible space for the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council. “It’s just not realistic to expect firefighters to be at every home that’s in the path of the fire or being showered by embers.”
Even though much of Santa Barbara’s front country has burned recently, Turpin noted, many of our more destructive fires, like the Tea Fire, started in extreme conditions near the wildland-urban interface and gave very little time for response. “And a lot of that chaparral is old enough to burn again,” he said. “To me, the antidote to anxiety is preparation.” Turpin also reminded residents to sign up for mobile alerts at readysbc.org.