The Thomas Fire in the city of San Buenaventura

When we got to Ventura about noon on December 19, we could still smell the smoke in the air. It got hazier and hazier as we descended the Santa Clara Valley to the Pacific Coast. It didn’t look as bad as the picture above, but the odor was definite and the haze apparent.

We had been through Ventura and driven around many of its neighborhoods the year before. One of the nice things about Ventura is that it doesn’t do wholesale destruction of its buildings. Many of the original commercial buildings are still in use, and the neighborhoods haven’t been blighted by McMansions. Even along commercial routes, you’re as likely to find remodeled Spanish bungalows serving as shops instead of having them torn down for strip malls.

Anyway, we hadn’t been into the West end of town. I’m repeating the picture I posted at the beginning of this series to give you some orientation. The west end is the part on the left of the picture that thrusts up toward the top of the picture. For those of you who like to go to Ojai, that’s State Route 33 that follows along the Ventura River. To the left of where things get narrow by the coast is the downtown area, squeezed in between the mountains and the Pacific, and the city spreads out along the hillsides, which are outside the city limits. The hills are where the fire came through.

It’s hard to see the burn areas within Ventura unless you’re on top of it or far away. If you’re in the middle-distance, the hills actually get blocked by the buildings. But then you come onto an area, and you can see the destruction.

Our first exposure was on the west end (right of the picture), which we hadn’t seen before and I wanted to visit. Though it’s not too clear in the pictures, there fire had burned everything off the hillside:

One of the hillsides further to the north was completely bare:

We came back through the center of town, and I realized that I’d always wanted to visit the old courthouse, which has been converted into the Ventura City Hall. However, I’ll come back to that in the next post. But we went inside and saw huge, industrial-strength air purifiers every few feet, roaring loudly as they continued to clear the smoke and odor more than a week after the fire had moved west.

After our visit to the old courthouse, it was lunchtime. We had a brought a picnic along, and so I looked for a park. I’d heard of Arroyo Verde Park, to the east along the mountains. It’s a beautiful expanse of green at the foot of one of the arroyos leading out of the hills:

If you climb up into the hills, you get a fabulous view of the Pacific Ocean with Arroyo Verde Park in the foreground (the island you see on the upper right is Santa Cruz Island):

But the magic words are “climb” and “hills,” and the hill are covered with chaparral, as seen in this aerial shot:

Indeed, if I’d been searching YouTube, I should have expected that the park might well not be open, even a week after the fire had come through:

The video is worth watching because you can both see and hear the Santa Ana winds. If you haven’t experienced them, it’s hard to understand how fires can spread so quickly. Once you’ve been in one, the understanding is embedded deep into your subconscious.

Foothill Drive is a beautiful highway running along the north side of Ventura and, as its name suggests, it’s in the foothills. We started seeing real fire damage as soon as we approached the park. In many stretch of Foothill Drive, there is nothing but mountainside to the north. Here, the fire burned straight down to the road:

When we got to the park, it was completely closed. We drove to the east, and saw lots more burn damage:It was hard to tell if that was a pad where a hillside home had once stood. Where we turned around a house abutting Foothill Drive and burned completely but, in a weird combination we continued to see elswhere in town, one house can burn to the ground while its neighbors are practically unaffected. Here’s a picture I took of such a burn site, except that I snapped it a second too soon to show the damage:However, in looking through the already published pictures, I got another view of the site, which was typical:  house and cars burned:



A home and car burned by theThomas fire are seen Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, in Ventura County. (Photo by Andy Holzman/Special to the Los Angeles Daily News)

Here is the entrance to Arroyo Verde Park, closed to the public:

Note that the fire burned all the way down to the street, something you can see if you watch the YouTube video above.

We drove on a few blocks, then turned south toward the beach. Again, we passed areas where a single house had burned completely without a single wall or beam remaining, and the other houses appeared untouched. It seemed ghoulish to be taking picture of houses that might not have appeared in the media already, so for the rest of this post, I’m relying on already-published pictures in mainstream media to illustrate what we saw.

We didn’t see a lot of complete destruction, where nothing was left on a block, though there were some:

Instead, the destruction appeared to be highly localized, almost as though a house had been chosen at random and its neighbors spared:


Or this:

This picture also shows something we saw that’s just puzzling. The stand of trees on the hill at the left of the picture are eucalyptus, an extremely resinous Australian import that has long been popular in southern California. Firefighters refer to them as the “botanical match” because they catch fire so easily. The fire has clearly gone through this stand of eucalyptus, but they don’t seem to have burned. I suspect the firefighters on the scene hosed them down as quickly as they good, and that might have saved both the trees and other homes from the fire. (The caption on the picture identified that burned house as a small Craftsman style, meaning a lot of wood was used.)

This is one of the scarier pictures I’ve found, showing residents leaving in the middle of the night as the fire bore down on their houses:

And finally, one of the reports we heard at the places where we ate were that many palm trees had burned down. I wasn’t too surprised to hear that….the summer we moved to Riverside had a rash of palm tree fires set by restless teenagers in our area, and you could see them for miles away. The dead fronds at the top of the palms burns fast and hot enough to ignite the top:

I thought such fires were a thing of the past, but I guess palm trees are still susceptible, whether humans or Mother Nature delivers the spark.




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