Recollections from the Thomas Fire: ‘I saw hundreds of houses and buildings on fire’

Smoke from the Thomas Fire rises above Ojai. Photo by Stephanie O'Neill

Tanya Sandefur lives on a 10-acre avocado ranch overlooking Ojai’s upper valley. Her property nestles against the Topa Topa mountains where, on the night of December 4th, 2017, she and her neighbors watched the first flames of the Thomas Fire burn away from them – toward the City of Ventura.

“We were watching it from my house,” Sandefur says, “and we’re looking and the fire’s going over the Sulphur mountains… towards Ventura and Santa Paula and so we’re thinking, ‘Oh we’re OK.’”

Thomas Fire above Ojai Orange grove. Photo by Stephanie O’Neill
Tanya Sandefur on her property where her house used to stand, with dogs Sky and Star.

At about the same time, downhill from Sandefur’s ranch, retired Sheriff’s Deputy Rod Thompson also wasn’t too concerned as he kept an eye on the Thomas Fire’s movements.

“We saw the glow and the smoke, heard the engines,” he says. “But the wind was blowing out of the north east, blowing it kind of away from us we thought, no problem.”

But about 40 minutes after the Thomas Fire started, a second fire began near the top of Koenigstein Road, close to the driveway leading to Sandefur’s ranch. Local residents later reported seeing a Southern California Edison transformer spark and set fire to the surrounding brush. With raging Santa Ana winds clocking in at about 60 miles an hour, Thompson became worried.

“The wind was blowing it directly toward me. And although I had my whole place cleared, the leaves coming from the trees up here were being blown against all of my buildings and then, of course, followed by sparks later,” Thompson says.

Rod Thompson in his deck of the home he saved in the Thomas Fire. Several other Buildings on his property, including his son’s house burned. Photo by Stephanie O’Neill
Smoke from the Thomas Fire rises above Ojai. Photo by Stephanie O’Neill

Within hours, the wind-fanned flames from both fires joined up and began burning down homes, including Tanya Sandefur’s. Throughout the night, the fire exploded – spreading faster than anyone had ever seen, including firefighting veterans like John McNeil, a Division Chief with the Ventura County Fire Department.

“It was five hours from the start of the fire to where it hit the western edge of the city of Ventura, which is 12 miles,” he says.

As the fire roared through upper Ojai, Thompson, an Ojai native and veteran of wildfires, was among those who stayed and fought for his property.

“The wind was blowing so hard and the leaves were piling up from underneath from being blown in,” he says.

The wooden deck around his house caught fire four times and each time he put it out, but it wasn’t easy.

“I had several times where I thought I was going to lose it,” Thompson says of his home.

Ultimately, though, he did save his house. But his other buildings – including his son’s family home – were devoured by the wall flame that rolled down from the transmission line.

Three days later, most of 30,000 residents in the Ojai Valley had evacuated. And on the night of December 6, flames completely surrounded the community and firefighters swarmed the area with more than 200 engines from as far away as Oregon and Texas. They stood guard as the mountains burned in every direction.

Strong north winds that night threatened to push the fire into downtown Ojai and the surrounding communities of Meiners Oaks and Mira Monte.

And then, a turn of luck.

The strong north wind never fully materialized and firefighters were able to keep the flames in the mountains – sparing the more heavily-populated communities from destruction.

But the City of Ventura didn’t fare so well. Within hours of igniting, the fast-moving wildfire engulfed Ventura’s hillside communities in unstoppable, wind-whipped flames, devouring more than 500 homes.

That night, Ojai resident Mark Pierson fled the flames racing up his mountain top property and then drove into Ventura. The scene, he says, was apocalyptic.

“I saw hundreds of houses and buildings on fire,” he says. “City hall around downtown main street Ventura (had) fire all around it.”

Bone-dry brush, dehydrated by years of drought, fueled the flames. The wildfire travelled so fast that many people in Ventura had no idea the danger they were in.

“Because how quickly it came upon our neighborhoods, there were people still watching TV in their living room with fire all around their house,” McNeil says. “That’s how quickly it came upon everyone.”

Thomas Fire aftermath above Lake Casitas. Photo by Stephanie O’Neill

A region-wide power outage cut off water supplies; fire hydrants went dry. The blaze moved so fast, McNeil says, that firefighters could focus only on evacuating people, many of whom were getting ready for bed or were already asleep.

“And a lot of times it was putting them in the fire truck, driving to a safe location, dropping them off and going back for more people,” he says.

Among them was Rhoda Zuk, then 87 years old. The flames first entered the city behind her street in the Clear Point neighborhood of Ventura. When they approached the back of her house, she was sleeping. Then her landline phone rang.

“It was mandatory evacuation, leave now!” She recalls the message stating.

But Zuk is disabled and needs assistance walking. About a minute later, she says, paramedics showed up at her door. To this day, she still isn’t sure how they knew to get her.

“They came in with the gurney and they said get on,” she says. “I said, ‘My God!’ He said, ‘Take a coat, it’s cold outside.’ I said, ‘OK.’ I just grabbed anything I could, and my purse and I got up. And when he came in, I said to him, ‘I am not leaving without my dogs.’”

So they loaded Zuk and her two dogs, Gaby and Penny, into the ambulance. When Zuk was allowed to return to the neighborhood more than a week later, she got good news: her house was among those left standing.

But dozens of others in the Clear Point neighborhood had vanished.

Becca Fuchs and Don Wagner at their burned home. Photo by Michael Shevchuk

A few miles away, Becca Fuchs and Don Wagner weren’t so lucky: Their rented mobile home tucked into a canyon on a 14-acre avocado ranch above Ventura Avenue was among those destroyed that night. Still they’re grateful, because they almost went to sleep without knowing anything about the fire.

Fuchs, a massage therapist, had an evening client that night. And when she got to her client’s house just before 8 pm, the moon caught her attention.

“I got out of the car and I looked up,” Fuchs says. “And I saw the moon and it was red and I thought, ‘Oooh cool, a lunar eclipse. I had no idea it was a lunar eclipse tonight.’”

So she called her husband, who was at home with their 18-month-old daughter, Birdie. She wanted him to show Birdie the moon, but he said there was no lunar eclipse and that she should check for fire. Fuchs looked up the news on her cell phone. But the fire was so far away, they weren’t concerned for their safety.

Later, Wagner called an Ojai area friend with lung problems and suggested he leave before the smoke got bad. And it’s that call, he says, that may have saved their lives. As their friend drove out of Ojai and passed by their ranch he called the couple and asked if they, too, were evacuating.

“I said, ‘No, we’ll be alright. It’s just going to get smoky here.’” Wagner says. “And he said, ‘there are flames on the mountain above your house.’ ”

The couple sprung into action: they woke up Birdie; got their two cats and loaded up their cars. Wagner tried to grab whatever he could, but the power outage had made it difficult for them to see anything. And just before midnight, they had no more time.

“And that’s when I saw the fire cresting the ridge and it still had a ways down the ridge to come,” Wagner says. “But it was moving so fast and it was so big and I never saw anything like that so close. It scared the hell out of me.”

As they fled, flames came down the mountain and began gobbling up the ranch. Neighbors in the more populated streets below were staring up, with mouths open, watching the fire. The scene, he says, was surreal.

“It was a fire storm,” Wagner says. “It was unlike anything you’ve seen in your life, obviously, unless it becomes the norm for you.”

Fire officials statewide are worried that these massive and destructive wildfires that have burned throughout California this past year have now become the new norm and that the notion of fire “season” no longer applies.

“We have fires starting in January all the way through December,” says Scott McLean, deputy chief with Cal Fire. “The deal that we’re seeing this year is the consistency of large fires that keep starting, keep starting, keep starting.”