Life in California’s “New Normal” Continual Wildfires

Firefighters monitor a section of the Thomas Fire along the 101 freeway on December 7, 2017 north of Ventura, California. The firefighters occasionally used a flare device to burn-off brush close to the roadside. Strong Santa Ana winds are rapidly pushing multiple wildfires across the region, expanding across tens of thousands of acres and destroying hundreds of homes and structures / Photo by Mario Tama / Getty

Last week, as the Thomas Fire gobbled up more than 270,000 acres of land and nearly 750 homes in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, California’s Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed that this year’s constant siege of wildfires in the Golden State was our “new normal.”

But for those of us who live in Santa Barbara—where rugged, desert-dry mountains rise out of the Pacific Ocean to serve as our seaside community’s dramatic backdrop—this “new normal” started more than a decade ago.

In 2004, as a reporter for The Santa Barbara Independent, where I currently work, my truck nearly burned while I was on the frontlines of the Gaviota Fire. From today’s perspective, it was only a minor fire that burned about 7,500 acres. Three years later, in the summer of 2007, I was married under the hazy skies of the Zaca Fire, which burned 240,000 acres of back country over a two-month period.

A year later, while flying out of Santa Barbara Airport for a Fourth of July getaway, I saw a few puffs of smoke in the nearby mountains and assumed it would be put out in no time. The next morning, I awoke to images of air tankers dropping retardant on what would be named the Gap Fire. That November, I was in a Paris hotel room when CNN reported that 200 Montecito homes had been destroyed overnight in the Tea Fire.

In the years since, I’ve dealt with a blend of smoke, anxiety and hassle thanks to the effects of the Jesusita (2009), La Brea (2009), White (2013), Rey (2016) and Sherpa (2016) fires.

This July, the Whittier Fire’s tower of smoke served as the backdrop for my daughter’s fifth birthday party. For three weeks, I watched the orange glow each night from the porch of my Goleta home until it firefighters extinguished the blaze. All that time, I had to remind my wife, neighbors, out-of-town relatives and myself that our home could never be threatened. It wasn’t in the hills. The flames would have to destroy hundreds of homes before they reached ours.

But after October’s wildfires in Sonoma and Napa destroyed more than 8,500 homes and even a Kmart in the middle of Santa Rosa, I’ve come to realize my wildfire wisdom is out-of-date. Anything can happen in this new normal.

And just about everything did when the Thomas Fire erupted December, 4, 2017, raging through Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. The inferno continues two weeks later. It has already consumed more than 1,000 structures. Most of the homes that burned to the ground are in the City of Ventura, 40 miles south of where I live.

Saturday’s full-fledged firefight was the most harrowing thing our community has experienced. Were it not for the hundreds of fire engines and crews from around the country stationed in driveways, hundreds of homes and the luxury resort, San Ysidro Ranch, would have been lost. Instead, just a handful of structures were destroyed.

The Thomas Fire’s smoke and ash is unlike anything I’ve experienced. It has forced schools to cancel classes a week early and winter camps to close. But our kids can’t play outside where gas masks are part of the new uniform. Cooped up inside for so long, they are bouncing off the walls, and my wife and I are snapping at whoever is nearby. Everyone is a bit miserable seeing the ash pile up everywhere, and the air no longer is fresh with sea breezes but dank with the smells of a dirty ashtray.

Each fire is different depending on where it starts and the weather. But each brings a sense of terror, dread, and uncertainty that can’t be healthy for anyone—especially children who must be reassured by adults, who are not so sure themselves.

It doesn’t feel right to stay in town amidst all the smoke, which we now know carries dangerous particulate matter. But it doesn’t feel good to leave either, like you’re abandoning your family during its roughest patch.

I’m certain Santa Barbara will come out on top. By the way, the weather’s been about 70 degrees Fahrenheit during this ordeal, which would have made for a nice and fairly typical December. But this “new normal” is far from ordinary.

Published on December 18, 2017
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