The Thomas Fire, which has devastated over 270,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and destroyed hundreds of homes since it sparked to life on December 4, turns out to have been born a two-headed monster.
Wildfire first broke out in the Santa Paula Canyon area during high winds, not far from Thomas Aquinas College, at 6:26 p.m. Monday evening, according to the Ventura County Fire Department (VCFD). The cause of that fire is under investigation by Cal Fire, the VCFD, and other authorities.
Also under investigation is a second fire that broke out in Upper Ojai, about four miles away, at the top of Koenigstein Road, about half an hour later on that fateful night. Cal Fire spokesperson Steve Kaufman confirmed that the Thomas Fire had two origins but could not discuss details regarding locations or causes of the fire pending an investigation.
Residents on Koenigstein Road believe a transformer near a home at the top of the roadway exploded around 7 pm. “You couldn’t start a [second] fire at a worse spot,” John McNeil, division chief of the VCFD, said at a community meeting in Upper Ojai last week. The second fire — which has not been widely reported — is also being investigated by Southern California Edison, according to the homeowners on whose property it began.
Homeowner Tiarzha Taylor had arrived to her house with her three children just before 7 p.m. “We heard a huge explosion about 30 or 50 feet outside of our window,” she said. “We turned and looked and saw sparks falling to the ground and our yard catching on fire. ‘Okay!’ I thought. That’s a lot closer than the fire at Thomas Aquinas. I ran to get the kids out of there and called 9-1-1.”
Taylor’s children said they heard an electrical buzzing sound outside that made them look out the window. “I heard this buzzing 'zzzzzz' sound, kind of like what you might hear in a movie about a mad scientist,” said Cole Everett, age 12. “The sound was dragged out and pretty loud. Then I saw a huge flash of light at the pole, and heard a boom, and saw a sprinkling of sparks falling to the ground.” The buzzing sound was also heard by Darren Hawkins, another Koenigstein Road resident who lost his home in the blaze.
The explosive growth of the fire at the top of Koenigstein forced nine Ventura County firetrucks to leave the scene within two hours, as winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour rushed through the steep hills.
As the first fire surrounded Thomas Aquinas College and jumped Highway 150, racing toward Ventura, the second fire in the hills above roared west toward the small settlement of Upper Ojai, home to a few hundred people nestled in a bucolic valley above the Ojai Valley. Retired sheriff’s deputy Rod Thompson saw it happen.
“I got a call from my son and took a look and, sure enough, coming up from Steckel Park was a big glow,” Thompson said. “We could see flames blowing up the mountain [about four miles away]. I thought we had plenty of time and went with my wife to haul out papers and photos and such, and I was looking with a friend out from my back property when all of a sudden there’s another fire started on Koenigstein. I watch as it gets momentum and becomes a rolling ball of firestorm coming along, and I thought, ‘We got to get going — this is coming so fast.’”
Thompson lost a granny flat he had recently refurbished. Dozens of other homeowners lost homes and structures in Upper Ojai, an estimated 10 percent of the total housing stock.
Attorney Alexander “Trey” Robertson filed a class-action lawsuit in Ventura Superior Court on Friday, December 15, on behalf of a number of residents in Santa Paula and Ventura who lost homes. He said he plans to file another lawsuit this week on behalf of residents who lost residences due to what he is calling “the Koenigstein Fire.”
The suit was filed against Southern California Edison, for alleged negligence in maintaining its power lines, and against the City of Ventura and the Casitas Municipal Water District, for reportedly not ensuring that water would be available to firefighters and homeowners in Ventura and surrounding areas during the blaze.
More specifically, the complaint claims that Edison crews working in the hills above the Ventura Ranch KOA Holiday campground in Santa Paula accidentally started the first fire. “[C]onstruction activities caused the ignition of dry vegetation at this construction site, which set off this massive wildfire,” the court filing reads. Edison has declined to comment.
Robertson also argued that hydrants operated by the City of Ventura didn’t work properly because of power outages. The Los Angeles Times reported this Thursday that the blackouts left some water-pumping stations inoperable. Elevated areas, such as canyons and hilly neighborhoods, were reportedly most affected.
Thompson, whose family has lived in Upper Ojai for generations, sees his community starting over thanks in large part to young people who have organized an informal platoon of volunteers to help residents who have lost homes. Thompson himself is in charge of a small local water company and expressed his gratitude for the help.
“Out of all this we see a community drawing together, with an outpouring of support from people outside,” he said, mentioning a relief center launched at the local store, which is giving away tools, clothes, food, and even chainsaws.