The end of the Thomas fire came with a dose of cruel irony. The downpours that put the finishing touches on the state’s biggest wildfire also caused massive flooding and loss of life.
Unfortunately, that’s how the cycle seems to work in California. One disaster seems to feed into the next. Drought leads to forests filled with bone-dry combustibles. Wildfires spring up and rage out of control. The landscape is scoured. Rains send the ashy remains on a downward path.
One or all of those events pose a threat to humans, as we see time and time again.
The Thomas fire burned 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The fire began near a power line in Ventura County on Dec. 4, and was declared officially contained last Friday.
The month-long inferno destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged nearly 300 more. The fire is being blamed in the deaths of two people, including a firefighter.
But as we all know, the disaster did not end after firefighters gained the upper hand over the Thomas fire. A powerful winter storm raked the region early last week, and torrential downpours sent the scorched leftovers from the fire down into the village of Montecito. At last count 19 people lost their lives, several remain missing and presumed dead, and several hundred homes were wiped out or severely damaged.
The rampaging mudslides followed gravity’s pull to the ocean, flooding Highway 101 — which has yet to reopen — and fouling public beaches all along that part of the coast.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown perfectly summed up the scene as looking “like a World War I battlefield … a carpet of mud and debris everywhere.”
And the threat to those South Coast folks may not be over. More rain, perhaps heavy downpours, are predicted for later this week.
But South Coast residents have the grim satisfaction of knowing there is not much of the scoured earth left to wash down — hopefully.
While South Coast residents struggle to recover from fire and flooding, North County folks are getting only about half the average expected rainfall this rainy season, which technically began in mid-summer last year and ends on June 1 of this year.
Our weather guy, John Lindsey, tells us that typically by this time of year, the Santa Maria Public Airport would have recorded about 5.5 inches of precipitation, but the airport has seen just 2.42 inches of rain. John predicts more is on the way, but all in all, this “rainy season” is off to a sketchy start.
All of these events and circumstances can cause doubt about the efficacy of living on the Central Coast. We’ve heard from friends forced from their Montecito homes by mandatory evacuation orders, and they can say with some assurance that the Thomas fire and last week’s mudslides have provoked some very serious discussions about the future.
Perhaps there is something about the current political climate — not just in the United States, but globally — that exacerbates such angst and frustration. But the plain truth is that the Thomas fire and its aftermath are not uncommon occurrences for Californians. If you’ve been here any length of time, you have probably seen it all. Drought, fires, mudslides devouring neighborhoods, big-city riots, earthquakes — California has it all.
And still, we choose to live here. It can be a mystery to outsiders, but most of us know and appreciate the wonders of life in paradise. Keep that thought, for comfort.