Less than two weeks after I made our last post, life took a dramatic turn not only for us, but for everyone in our local community. Dec 4th was a fairly normal Monday. We did have to make a short trip up to the Olive Mill at Figueroa Farm in Santa Ynez to drop off some food grade 5-gallon buckets for storing oil from our newest harvest batch. We were supposed to send them up with the hauler, but we forget to give them to him before he left. We decided to make the trip as a family, and enjoy the time together in the car.
The day before, we had just finished up a 2nd Olive harvest day. We improved our picking process, and had a bigger group of people, and managed to bring in 1.5 tons instead of only a half ton! It was a great day (see photos below) and great fun, although quite exhausting! By the time Monday rolled around, we were beat! Hence the decision to just all ride up to Santa Ynez and hang out together as a family on the way up there. A 4 hour round trip mini vacation to the mill (oh boy!! Can I come?!)
Driving on the same mountainous 2-lane highway just days before, Deirdre and I commented on the dryness of the hillside brush and trees on both sides of the road. We usually get rain starting in November here, but not this year. It was bone dry. We half-jokingly, half-seriously talked about being ready at any moment to turn around and drive the other way if it were to catch on fire somehow.
If you go drive that same road today, you won't see any brush. Or trees. They all burned in what became California's biggest wildfire on record. And it started just above our little valley, right next to the small Catholic college that most of our olive harvest volunteers attend. Dubbed "The Thomas Fire" after "Thomas Aquinas College", the blaze started Monday Dec 4th, and burned 281,893 acres and 1,063 buildings over the next 39 days.
We were eating dinner around 6:30 when the girl that stayed with us came home and said there was a fire somewhere East of us and the sky was glowing. Sure enough, we walked outside, and could see the pulsing red glow in the sky. Worst of all, it was a windy night, with seasonal Santa Ana winds throwing tree branches and debris around everywhere. I knew this fire was going to spread, but had no idea of just how far.
There is something about natural disasters that has a way of consuming your attention, and pushing all routines to the side. The mindset one gets into in the presence of pending danger is all-encompassing. It looked from the initial glow that the fire could be quite close to our farm and orchard, so I wanted to drive up and see if they were in danger. I didn't want the kids to feel worried though, so I told Deirdre I was sneaking out briefly to run over and take a look. I drove a couple miles past the farm, and could see now that it was further away than I thought. It appeared to be in a Canyon on the other side of the hills, and that turned out to be correct, but it was moving fast.
When I say fast, I mean driven by 60-70 MPH wind gusts. A good friend of ours is a local fire chief who happened to be on duty when the fire broke out, and he told us later about that first night in the Canyon. The scene he described was complete chaos, with people trying to evacuate, the only road out getting jammed, winds spreading fire everywhere, and unfortunately one woman died trying to escape when her car crashed.
When I got home, I checked the local news and twitter to see what we could learn. All we could learn was that the fire was being fueled by incredible winds, and the outer edges of nearby Ventura were under urgent mandatory evacuation. We put the kids to bed, and continued to check the news on my phone. I should have plugged my phone in, because an hour later, the power went out. I drove quickly to the farm to get our generator.
While there, I could see that the road leading up to the Orchard (one of only 4 small roads leading out of our valley) had just been closed by the police only 1/4 mile up from the farm. I grabbed the generator and gas can, and looked around in the light of the headlights at the farm. For a brief minute I indulged in the sobering thought that it could all burn, and I might come back to bare, charred land with debris strewn around. In that regard, we ended up being luckier than many neighbors, but I had no way of knowing that at the time.
Back at the house, we tried to go back to bed, but I could not sleep, and the news kept on... spreading fast, spreading faster, Ventura get out!! The nearest road out had closed, so we decided to go spend the night at Deirdre's parents, who live right off another road that leads out of the other side of the Valley. We brought the kids over around 11:00 pm, and shared the generator with the grandparents so we could all charge our phones, since the power was out everywhere.
I slept a total of 2 hours that night. I was worried about the speed the fire was spreading, and was ready to wake everyone up and leave in a moment's notice. I did not want to be at the back of a long string of frantic cars trying escape a narrow valley on 2-lane highways. By 5 am, I read that 150 buildings in Ventura had already burned, including a hospital where Deirdre's Dad used to work.
By mid-morning, we decided to drive north and get our of harms way. Flames had become visible on the hills around us. We drove briefly home with the truck to get clothes and supplies, and the few irreplaceable items we would miss if the house burned. Leaving the house, I felt a strange feeling of detachment and freedom, realizing that it all might burn. As we drove out of town, there were cars everywhere, and lines at the gas station going out into the street and around the corner! Fortunately, we had a full tank of gas, and we hit the road.
It was a slow drive due to the number of cars trying to leave, and everybody was slowing down further to watch the flames. Most people were heading for Santa Barbara, but we decided to drive further. Deirdre has a sister in San Jose, so we thought we might as well drive the extra 3 hours to go see her and spend the night there. We ended up staying 6 days, following the firefighter's progress all the while. After that point, although the fire was still active near our home, the imminent danger seemed to have passed, and we badly needed to get back and tend to the farm, and begin the olive harvest with our hired harvest crew.
The day after we got back was the day the pickers were supposed to begin picking. There were still 18 tons of olives left in the orchard after the 2 we had picked with volunteers right before the fire. The road to the orchard was still closed, and I was worried we wouldn't be able to pick. This was Dec 12th, and we were running out of time before Christmas, and the first frost. We had already pushed the harvest back several times, and I didn't want to risk waiting any longer.
The roads cleared up just in time. It looked like a barren wasteland with trees burnt everywhere, and ruined homes on both sides of the road. The orchard got scorched on the outside edges, and we lost all the harvest equipment we had purchased and were storing up there. But most of the olives were fine, and for the next 10 days we oversaw the harvest. We also spent a couple hours a day venturing onto the farm to cleanup the awful mess of ashes and things strewn everywhere in the 70 MPH winds. The smoke over the valley was so dense we had to wear masks. We stayed with my parents about 30 minutes away where the smoke was not so thick, and did not actually return to our house until the 22nd.
After picking up the final batch of oil from the mill in Santa Ynez, we set to work airing out our smoky house, and getting ready for Christmas! It was still a beautiful holiday despite the recent events, and we certainly remembered to pray for those who had lost their homes, and were forced to celebrate elsewhere. We had nothing to complain about in comparison with those who lost their homes!
We are still feeling the aftermath of the fire today. Being away from the farm for a week, and then having the harvest occupy most of our attention for the next 10 days put us far behind our planting schedule, and weeds and gophers moved in. We are beginning to feel back to normal there, and the disaster really forced us to adopt a rigorous work schedule that we plan to continue indefinitely, with the goal of making the farm better than ever before. I'll save the details of our cool new routines for another post. Until then, take care, keep safe, and offer a prayer for those less fortunate than we were!
About the Authors
Max and Deirdre Becher farm together on First Steps Farm in Southern California. They love farming, raising their kids, playing music, contradancing, cooking, and working together to create a vibrant culture of celebrating life. See it all unfold right here!