The first fire began on Monday night, December 4, in the hills near Santa Paula, California. Jeff Crump, a soccer coach, was refereeing a game in downtown Oak View, about 17 miles away. At home that evening, his power went out; there was no Internet, no cell service. He stepped outside to see an orange glow in the hills. When he woke the next morning, the sky was dark but the orange glow had grown larger. Already the fire had a name, he would learn from the radio as he drove around town that morning. There would be more fires, from all directions, soon to come.
Overnight, the Thomas Fire, which more than a week later remains the most colossal of the blazes, had picked up speed, as fires borne on Santa Ana winds tend to do in their first hours. It consumed the Vista Del Mar Hospital in Ventura, a psychiatric facility, where patients being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder were evacuated by car. The governor declared a state of emergency in Ventura County. Ron Burby, a Red Cross volunteer from Vancouver, Washington, whose disaster relief work this year has included assignments with Hurricane Harvey evacuees and with those fleeing the fires in Santa Rosa, California, was slated to deploy to Puerto Rico for three weeks when he was suddenly rerouted to the Ventura County Fairgrounds. By Tuesday, a “freight train of service” was in place: meals and beds, air purifiers,children’s toys; later, a volunteer manicurist.
In Ojai, the Humane Society of Ventura County rapidly began to assume an ark-like atmosphere, with rabbits, pigs, goats, geese, and alpacas occupying every nook and cranny. Employees shared office space with cats and dogs, snakes and birds. No pets had been turned away, said Greg A. Cooper, the director of community outreach, and droves of volunteers showed up to work around the clock. They welcomed evacuated horses into the center’s paddocks.
“As humans, we have warnings,” said Jaclyn DeSantis of the Ojai Raptor Center, a wildlife rehabilitation refuge that specializes in birds of prey—owls, red-tailed hawks, falcons, vultures—but also triages other wildlife—bears, bobcats, mountain lions—on a regular basis. “But this time there were none. Birds have pneumatic bones; they depend on their respiratory systems to fly.” On Tuesday, she and Kimberly Stroud, the center’s director, watched as more than 60 turkey vultures and several murders of crows flew swiftly ahead, fleeing the fires. In a bittersweet move, the center opened the doors of the aviaries of 20 birds that were soon due for release and then safely evacuated their own education birds.
Part of DeSantis’s home had burned, a loss the recently transplanted New Yorker seemed to weather with newfound Californian resilience and a love for her adopted place. “There’s a wisdom of the valley here,” she said, “of those who had seen these things?before.” Meanwhile, Stroud packed her own pets, her favorite knife and cast-iron skillet, a piece of art, supplies, and evacuated to a volunteer’s house. The 24 education birds spent the night in a dining room in their crates. It was, Stroud admitted, a little noisy.
Around 4:00 a.m. last Tuesday, the Creek Fire broke out in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and jumped the 210 freeway, burning 11,000 acres and causing authorities to shut down portions of the road. By mid-morning, Interstate 5 had closed after a third fire, the Rye, broke out in the Santa Clarita Valley. Just three hours later, fires were reported at Cal State San Bernardino.
Residents of the Upper Ojai Valley and Western Ventura County were warned to boil all drinking water. The skies, Instagrammed and tweeted, were occasionally unnervingly beautiful. Some were reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s “grapy dusk . . . the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red.” For the first time the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection used its “purple” alert. Red meant high. Purple was “extreme”. There were magenta sunsets, fiery doomsday sunsets; there were little flares that appeared on the horizon like multiple sunrises in daytime; at night they are known as cat’s eyes. In pictures, fires swarmed through the dark chaparral, which took on a volcanic hue.
“Ash was falling like rain outside my window,” Crump said of the last time he’d seen his house. He had rapidly begun to lose his voice. On Tuesday he and his girlfriend had evacuated north to his ex-wife’s home in Carpinteria, and then when the fires followed them, they evacuated again, heading back south and eventually settling at the Red Cross shelter. He spoke from a donated phone whose area code of origin—western Louisiana—was unfamiliar to him.
In a part of the world where people plot their lives according to rhythms of traffic, the fires defied predictability. Even for those who had known other fires, other losses, had go-bags packed in their cars, these were different. “It bounced all over like a jumping jelly bean,” said Stroud. Despite its seemingly erratic nature, the fire seemed to be heading straight toward the most iconic places in Los Angeles, the most extraordinary landscapes,as if, in its own variable manner, it would map?the geography of the so-called golden dream.
By Wednesday the Thomas Fire had blazed through some 90,000 acres—the size of Atlanta. In the predawnhours, the Skirball?Fire broke out by the Mulholland Drive exit on the 405, allegedly started by a cooking fire at a homeless encampment. It blazed through Bel-Air, near UCLA, which distributed masks on campus, and the Getty Museum, where the art was kept sealed indoors as smoke filled the air. Fox News acting CEO Rupert Murdoch’s estate in Bel-Air was evacuated as the Skirball ate through a vineyard. The northbound and southbound lanes of the 405 were closed near the Sepulveda Pass; in pictures, the emptied lanes resembled the barren, post-apocalyptic interstate of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. When the 405 was open, fires reached the edges, and in photographs, traffic seemed to drive straight into the mouth of the blaze, like an inferno at the end of the highway. “It’s rare,” wrote Rolling Stone, “that the dissonance of climate change is this visceral.”
“The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself: Nathanael West perceived that, in The Day of the Locust; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots, what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires,” Joan Didion wrote in “Los Angeles Notebook” in 1968. “For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end.” By Wednesday, NASA reported, the plumes of the Skirball Fire were visible from space. For the first time, the Los Angeles Fire Department sent up drones to track the fires and the Santa Anas, the dry, downsloping winds that course mercilessly from the desert through the mountain passes as they head toward the Pacific. “The wind,”Didion wrote, “shows us how close to the edge we are.”
In past millennia, as John McPhee wrote in his 1988 New Yorker essay “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” the dry, scrubby brush that scatters the hillsides burned every 30 years or so. “When the inevitable fires come, they burn hotter, higher, faster than they ever did in a state of unhindered nature. When the fires end, there is nothing much left on the mountainsides but a thin blanket of ash.”
“I ride in the hills behind the ranch, and over the years you just see more and more dead oak trees, a lot of dry brush. With the drought, it’s just a perfect storm. We don’t usually get Santa Anas this late in the year,” said Julie Hobbins, a vocational teacher who also works at Rancho Arnaz, where she boards her own horses; she worked equine evacuations for three years in Los Angeles. “If you remain calm, the horse remains calm,” Hobbins said by phone. “On Tuesday morning the fire came right down the back of the hill. It was unbelievable. Within no time, neighbors and volunteers showed up with trailers and trucks; we managed to relocate all 45 horses to the Humane Society and the Ventura County Fairgrounds.” Now she just wanted to get them home.
But the Santa Anas continued. In Oxnard, which produces most of the country’s strawberries and employs tens of thousands of farmworkers each season, strawberry and celery harvests continued in hazy, pink light and in heavy smoke- and toxin-filled air. Farmworkers, laboring in the fields from dawn to dusk, began to complain of headaches, trouble breathing, and heat stress from lack of oxygen. Amadeo Sumano, a 30-year-old United Farm Workers leader and farmworker originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, successfully organized a group of fellow workers to lobby their supervisor for smoke masks, though the masks are hard to wear while performing physically demanding work. “Five years ago, there was another fire, but it wasn’t as bad as this,” he said by phone, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. “Oxnard is in the lower part; the smoke lingers all through the fields.”
Elsewhere in the county, the fire lobbed ember bombs down the hillsides of an avocado orchard. For Sumano, who has two sons, 5 and 3, there are no days off unless the grower permits them. He has worked the fields for more than a decade and earns minimum wage, which is $10.50 an hour in California. It can take months to afford basic necessities: shoes, shirts, pants, food. “We work 365 days a year,” he said. “We don’t get holidays, we don’t get sick days, we don’t get vacation.”
On Friday, Yaagub Yasharal flew back from Miami with his wife and two young children; they never made it to their home, which was in the fire’s path. “We were prepared to sleep in the park,” he said, until someone told him about the Red Cross shelter at the fairgrounds, where they have been living since. Every morning, he and other evacuees wait for Cal Fire, a streamlined term for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, to put up that day’s updated map of fire damage. Yasharal hadn’t heard from his landlord or his boss—he works in carpentry and construction, and was beginning to feel uncertain. “But California is the most accepting place, and our religion teaches us not to value material possessions,” said Yasharal, who is Orthodox Jewish.
He was grateful that the Red Cross meals adhered to the family’s vegan diet, that there were organic diapers for his daughter; his 4-year-old son is already so well-versed in natural disasters from the news that he has a concept of what a FEMA shelter is and was glad that they were not living in one. “What I don’t understand is the way it burns,” Yasharal said, speaking by phone. “It’s not natural. You’ll see trees and grasses around a burnt car. The trees don’t burn, but the cars melt.”
The fires began just two months after the Northern California wildfires, collectively the worst in the state’s history, which burned some 245,000 acres of wine country, claimed 44 lives, and whose memory was still raw and fresh. “What’s unusual is the fact that fuels are so dry,” Thomas Rolinski, a senior meteorologist with the United States Forest Service, told The New York Times. “We haven’t had any meaningful precipitation since March.” Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, unlike the rest of California, remained in their sixth year of drought.
On Thursday the Lilac Fire spread near Palo Verde in San Diego County. In footage that quickly went viral, dozens of racehorses were released from their barns, and more than 40 perished when fires engulfed buildings at a training center. Up in Ojai, people were evacuating downtown in vintage trolleys. Firefighters, including crews from as far as Washington state and Arizona, worked in 24-hour shifts, and spoke of the fire in anthropomorphic terms: “Oh yeah, I’m watching it grow. She’s eatin’ this morning.”
“This is kind of the new normal,” Governor Jerry Brown said at a news conference Saturday in Ventura County, soberly citing climate change. “This could be something that happens every year or every few years.” He added, “We’re about to have a firefighting Christmas.”
While photographing this story, Nich McElroy pulled over in Ventura County when he saw a woman picking through the remains of a scorched motor home. The place did not belong to Karen Baptisse, who owns a house-cleaning business in the area, and whose own residence was spared by the fire, but she was looking for scrap metal to salvage for recycled art. She makes garlands of crushed bottle caps and ball bearings; she intended to pot succulents in discarded aluminum cans. “My intention is to bring whatever I find back to life,” she told me later by phone. “You know the craft store Michaels? Well, the streets and the fields are my Michaels! I’m just a closet rusty person who has yet to evolve.”
On the night the fires began, she had slept fully dressed in her bed, with boots on and keys in her pocket; her car packed with things she wanted to keep and donations for the homeless. Watching the fire overtake areas four blocks away, she still declined to evacuate. “I’m the mayor of my street! Once the ash settles and the streets are opened and I’m able to get on my Vespa, I’ll explore. That’s when it’ll impact me,” she said. “I’m an adventurer. I’m always in harm’s way.”
On Sunday afternoon, small fires smoldering in the hills for days near Rancho Arnaz grew into flames that swept into the orchard and threatened to overtake the barn; once again, Julie Hobbins and the other ranch workers grabbed garden hoses until fire trucks bearing crews from Arizona arrived. Highway 33 was closed as the fire plowed into Santa Barbara County. Employees of the Santa Barbara Zoo moved animals to their night quarters and passed out toys to alleviate boredom—the gorillas, the Los Angeles Times reported, like music. In Ventura, palm trees bent wildly in the mounting wind. A giant plume appeared over the sky like a mushroom cloud. “You ever seen a thundercloud shoot straight up in the air?” Jeff Crump said, speaking into his unfamiliar phone as he walked down Main Street. “Well.”
“The rains, whenever they come, will bring back the meadows,” he continued. “But those old oak forests way up in the hills, they take 40 or 50 years to rejuvenate themselves.” He was speaking of favorite hikes near Ojai, whose earliest Venture?o Chumash inhabitants called it ?awhay, meaning “moon.” “I’m just thinking there’s going to be nothing left up there. It’s going to be like a moonscape.”
On the morning of December 11, the Thomas Fire, which had consumed 230,000 acres, was said to be bigger than all of New York City and Boston combined. Yesterday, only 20 percent of the fire was contained. On a map, its perimeter switchbacked from coast to mountain ranges, the edges of its path as jagged as wicking flames. Smoke spread from Bakersfield to Santa Barbara, as the fire headed toward the coastal town of Carpinteria, home to the largest Torrey pine tree on earth, and Montecito, the most affluent city in Santa Barbara County, home to Rob Lowe, Ellen DeGeneres, Oprah Winfrey, and Al Gore. The celebrities were reportedly evacuating too.
Since 1970, the Western fire season has extended by an extra 105 days a year. “We don’t even call it fire season anymore. Take the ‘season’ out—it’s year-round,” Cal Fire Captain Scott McLean said bluntly as he delivered Monday’s “fire situation” report.
After just a week, the rescuers and volunteer workers admitted to a kind of fire fatigue: the exhaustion of constant vigilance, of 3:00 a.m. firewatches and multiple evacuations, the feeling of cresting on waves of panic and calm and a fleeting, uneasy relief. The birds at the Ojai Raptor Center had finally returned home to roost in their own aviaries. With the donations that had begun to pour in, Stroud was planning to partner with local nurseries and other businesses to repopulate native plants, to replenish food and water for wildlife who would return to their habitat. “After the smoke clears,” she said, “they’ll come down the mountains into town—lions, coyotes. Last fire, we had bears in swimming pools and a mountain lion resting in the shade on someone’s front lawn.”
It does not escape that Jerry Brown’s phrase this weekend—“the new normal”—is one that?people most frequently apply to the experience of coping with sudden and devastating situations that seem to have no logic. It does not escape that what seems to be afflicting California is a kind of terminal illness too, one that the country continues to suffer in the shape of dramatic hurricanes, floods, and rising temperatures. It does not escape that for all its seeming erratic path, the fire struck some of the places most deeply embedded on the westward-seeking imagination, and that if these places do not have time to rejuvenate before the next fire strikes, where do we look to next?
It is still too soon to know the true scope of the Thomas Fire; it is still ongoing. For the land itself, and the people working to save it, the firefighters on their 24-hour shifts, and those working closest to it, the tens of thousands of farmworkers whose livelihoods depend on their ability to harvest berries through the winter, California is not just some golden dream, but the only recourse. “We’re already used to being farmworkers; we’re used to hard labor. It would be even harder to start over again,” Sumano said. “When you see that smoke cloud in the sky, the first thing you hope is that the grower will have a heart. You hope the supervisor will say, ‘That looks ominous, let’s take a day.’ ” But they haven’t yet.