While the cause of the Thomas Fire remains under investigation, this much is certain: The wind-driven wildfire sparked to life around 6:20 Monday evening in the foothills north of Santa Paula near Thomas Aquinas College and spread at such an alarming rate that eight hours later 26,000 acres had been reduced to ash. Another eight hours went by — marked by overnight blackouts and an ominous sunrise through thick plumes of smoke — and 45,500 total acres were blackened, 150 homes and structures destroyed, and nearly 30,000 residents of Santa Paula, Ventura, and parts of Ojai had fled their homes under evacuation orders. “Our firefighters had a really rough night,” said Ventura County Fire Captain Stan Ziegler on Tuesday morning. “The winds were erratic, moving rapidly to the west toward Ventura and Highway 33 and to the north toward Upper Ojai. Winds were a steady 20-25 mph, with gusts to 50.”
By mid-morning Wednesday, nearly 1,800 personnel were assigned to the fire, which had expanded to 65,000 acres with zero containment. It had jumped Highway 33 and the Ventura River west of Ventura Avenue and was racing along the coastal bluff above Highway 101 toward La Conchita. Mandatory evacuations were called for the communities of La Conchita, Solimar, Mussel Shoals, and Rincon. “The fire has taken control of the slope where the oil facilities are along Highway 101,” said Rich Macklin, an information officer with Ventura County Fire. “That’s an issue for us.” He added that the fire had also slopped over the 101 and burned a small area near Faria Beach Park.
Along the scope of the fire, from Santa Paula to Ventura and up into Ojai, approximately 12,000 structures were threatened and the number of displaced residents had jumped to 50,000. As of print deadline, one firefighter, with Ventura County, was hospitalized with moderate injuries after he was struck by a fleeing vehicle early in the blaze; he has since been treated and released.
At Santa Barbara City Hall Tuesday afternoon, City Fire Chief Pat McElroy told councilmembers that 150 personnel from Santa Barbara County, including 26 city firefighters, were assigned to the Thomas Fire. By Wednesday, more had been dispatched to the Little Mountain Fire in San Bernardino. “Things are very fluid,” McElroy said. Admitting a bias, Councilmember Frank Hotchkiss expressed concern that the city could be outmatched if a wildfire struck Santa Barbara as city firefighters worked the Thomas and beyond. McElroy replied that interagency cooperation statewide would protect Santa Barbara, or any place else, no matter what. He added that as a general rule, high-wind warnings in Ventura mean relatively calm conditions in Santa Barbara, and vice versa.
By Tuesday evening, the evacuated gathered at the Ventura County Fairgrounds, Nordoff High School in Ojai, Oxnard College, Santa Paula Community Center, Fillmore’s Veterans Memorial Building, and UCSB’s Multi-Activity Court. Dozens of horses, pets, and livestock from Ventura County had been evacuated to Santa Barbara’s Earl Warren Showgrounds. Another 150 evacuated horses were being cared for at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club. Carpinteria Unified School District closed all its schools Wednesday, as smoke and ash compromised air quality.
Early Tuesday, flames in the foothills above North Ventura Avenue forced firefighters to abandon their efforts to save Vista del Mar, a 16-acre, 87-bed psychiatric hospital. Of the 10 Santa Barbara County residents — nine adults and one minor — at Vista del Mar when the fire struck, three were placed in Santa Barbara’s Psychiatric Health Facility, known as PHF, an involuntary psychiatric lockdown for patients who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. Others were picked up by family, and one, according to George Kaufmann, a mental-health advocate with National Alliance on Mental Illness, wandered off from the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where Vista del Mar patients were taken. Suzanne Grimmesey, spokesperson for Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness, later confirmed that the patient was located and transported to Cottage Hospital. Typically, the demand for Santa Barbara County’s PHF far exceeds the 16 beds available, thus necessitating the need to ship patients to out-of-county facilities like Vista del Mar in the first place.
Since record keeping began in 1932, according to Cal Fire, three Ventura County fires rank among the 20 biggest statewide: 1932’s Matilija Fire (220,000 acres), 1985’s Wheeler Fire (118,000 acres), and 2006’s 163,000-acre Day Fire, started in Piru Canyon by a transient with schizophrenia who was sentenced to 45 months in federal prison for willfully burning debris in Los Padres National Forest.