Firefighters call it the perfect storm. On December 4th 2017, the Thomas Fire began, quickly making its way to Santa Barbara County.
“We had no rain, we had no fuel moisture and then we had low RH’s (relative humidity), no atmospheric moisture which allowed fuels to burn really really hot,” explained Santa Barbara County Fire Batallion Chief, Chris Childers.
“We didn’t have time to prepare. It was a late season fire so no one was expecting to have that extreme of fire conditions at that time,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Captain, Jason Orr.
Thousands of people in the fire’s path were forced to evacuate.
“We had several days of just unknown days. There was a lot of smoke, [and it was] very difficult to breathe. It was coming in this direction more and more so there was a lot of panic,” said evacuee, Thomas Watermeier.
Some store owners even emptied their shops, not knowing if their decades’ long businesses would be safe.
“We just didn’t expect it. I was trying to come to work that morning and the winds – I had never seen anything like that before! So we tried to remove all the frames and products from the store,” said Occhialli Fine Eyewear Store Owner, Irwin Eve.
27 structures were destroyed in Santa Barbara County, and over 280,000 acres burned in total.
Now one year later, the scars of Thomas Fire still linger as a visual reminder for some and an internal reminder for others.
“Well I’ve relocated again to another fire region so I’m hoping we won’t have any problem. We’re trying to keep up with the defensible space, finishing school and hopefully, we won’t have any more issues like that again,” Watermeier said.
As other California wildfires have now surpassed the Thomas Fire in size, the Santa Barbara County Fire Department is looking towards the future
“So the risk is there but now we have a younger fuel bed, there are some breaks and we have some chances to address the fuel problem in the Santa Barbara front country,” Chief Childers said.
The Montecito mudslide happened about a month after the fire started. Chief Childers tells KSBY because of the fire, there’s still not enough vegetation to hold the hills above Montecito together if we were to get heavy rains again.
Two people died during the Thomas Fire. The city of Ventura is suing So-Cal Edison for its potential role in starting the fire. The official cause has not yet been determined.