The first report of a wildfire in progress came in just before 6:30 Monday evening, Dec. 4. High winds soon whipped the small blaze into a growth industry, and the Thomas fire battle was on.
And here we are, more than a month later, and the battle continues. Subdued, perhaps, but still burning its way into the California record books.
It became the Thomas fire because its place of origin was close to Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula. Firefighters once got to name fires they were fighting, but that practice was halted for a variety of reasons, all of then sound.
The Thomas fire was small at the start, like all California wildfires. But thanks to drought-starved, brittle-dry brush and Santa Ana winds, it quickly morphed into a rampaging monster, out of control and destroying everything in its path.
About a half-hour after first reports of the Santa Paula blaze, a second fire ignited about four miles away from the Thomas site. High winds pushed the fires together, and a hybrid monstrosity was born.
The cause of the fires is still being investigated, but there’s a good chance it had something to due with human negligence. Witnesses claim they saw sparks from a power line near Thomas Aquinas College, a claim vigorously disputed by power company officials. Others suspect the original blaze may have started in an area frequented by homeless folks.
While finding the cause of such fires is important, it’s what happens after a wildfire gains strength that matters most to those in its path.
And what happened in the Thomas fire was, and is catastrophic by any measure.
Just more than 90-percent had been contained by early this week, when the Thomas fire had consumed more than 281,000 acres, thus becoming the largest fire in California’s recorded history. For purposes of scale, 280,000 acres-plus equates to more than 440 square miles of charred mess.
More than 1,050 structures were incinerated, with hundreds more damaged. At its height the fire was engaged by nearly 9,000 men and women firefighters, drove more than 100,000 Californians from their homes, and cost nearly $200 million — and the meter is still running on the costs.
California’s quirky weather is never a help in these kinds of events, and this time was no different. We experienced the driest March-through-December period on record, and Santa Ana winds peaked shortly after the Thomas fire began to spread, often topping 60 mph. Frankly, humans are no match for that combination of drought and wind when the sparks fly.
The final story on the Thomas fire has yet to be written, but the message from this tragedy is the same as it always is — we have monster fires, and we all need to be smart about doing our best not to be the cause of a wildfire.
The simple rule is, use your head, think. Don’t do things you know will cause sparks. Keep combustible materials away from the outside of your home. Don’t toss a lit cigarette out the car window. Basic, common sense stuff.
We also need to be smart about preparing for the next big one. The rules are fairly straight-forward: Have an escape plan that includes a kit with some basic necessities, safeguard your important documents, make sure everyone in your family knows where and when to meet if they have to make a run for it, choose an escape route beforehand.
Plan ahead, because you won’t have time when the fire is coming at you.