Approaching the Thomas Fire through the Santa Clara River Valley

You might well think that these pictures here are of the Thomas Fire from December, 2017, at Ventura or Santa Paula. In fact, they’re from a September, 2009 fire called the Guiberson Fire that started farther up the Santa Clara River Valley at Fillmore. You could swap out any number of fires in the Ventura County chaparral over the years and find them almost identical to these or to those you saw of the Thomas Fire.

After we left Piru, we didn’t start seeing the expected fire damage until we got as far west as Santa Paula. Like many things in California, the damage caused by wildfires is often difficult to detect at a distance on the ground because there’s often haze in the air and because chaparral is never as green as people often expect, particularly after a dry summer. (Remember also that the seasons are inverted in California: the growing season is the winter when we typically get rain [though not this year, apparently], and summer is the dormant season since there’s no water besides irrigation.) Chaparral that hasn’t been dried out typically looks like the hills in back of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, where the Thomas fire started:

No doubts about why a fire could start and spread from here. Here’s an aerial shot of Wheeler Canyon, to the west of where the fire started and which later burned.


To my eye, the chaparral here is looks greener that usual, though that may be caused by grass that grows quickly in the winter but has shriveled up by later spring. Chaparral during most of the year typically appears to be a dusty, dark green or brown, which you can still see in both of the pictures. Thus, at distance a burned chaparral isn’t as obvious as, say, a burned forest in the Northwest where everything is quite green. Here was our first glimpse of the hillsides in Santa Paula as we bypassed the town on our way west to Ventura:

Another view, a few seconds later at 60 mph on Route 126:

Although it may be hard to see in these pictures, unburned chaparral may be dark and dusty, but it gives the hillsides a kind of bumpy texture if you’re seeing it from several miles off, as we were. What’s different about these pictures is that the mountainsides look quite smooth compared to, say, the background of the Thomas Aquinas College and Wheeler Canyon photographs posted above. By contrast, the current pictures show a mountainside with relatively little relief on it. Admittedly, it is difficult to see in the haze, even when taken through a polarizing filter as these were.

Many people, even residents of southern California, don’t have an appreciation of how fast a wildfire can burn….though after this fire season, anyone who doesn’t just hasn’t been paying attention. In preparing this post, I found the two maps below that illustrate the speed of the Thomas Fire. The first is at 11:30 pm on December 4.

To appreciate the power of the Santa Ana winds blowing at more than 30 mph, take a look at how far the Thomas Fire spread in just over 90 minutes:

As California’s population continues to grow, there will be more and more pressure to push into dangerous county in the hills to provide more housing, particularly lots of rich people like to live where there’s  a view. The risks, however, are substantial in most parts of California because fire is a natural part of the California environment, even without human sources. I’ll be writing more about the dangers of building housing in “undeveloped” areas during 2018, and will include issues of wildfire, fire protection/suppression, problems of flooding (we do, after all, get 100-year and 500-year floods), and the enormous but unseen financial costs of coastal development in areas where seaside rocks are eroding rapidly, undercutting multi-million-dollar structures with politically well-connected residents who are only too happy to pressure governments to spend vast amounts of money defending their surf-side castles that probably shouldn’t have been built on that location in the first place.

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