Officials closer to determining cause of historic Thomas Fire 1 year after ignition
By Brian Lada, AccuWeather meteorologist and staff writer
December 05, 2018, 4:49:12 PM EST
(Photo/Kari Greer, U.S.F.S)
(Photo/Kari Greer, U.S.F.S.)
(AP Photo/Mike Eliason)
(AP Photo/Mike Eliason)
(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
(Photo/Kari Greer, U.S.F.S.)
(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
(Photo/Kari Greer, U.S.F.S)
On Dec. 4 2017, the Thomas Fire ignited in Southern California and it would eventually become one of the largest and most destructive wildfires in California history.
This fire burned for nearly six months, scorching 281,893 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The Thomas Fire stood as the largest wildfire in California history, but was overtaken by the Mendocino Complex Fire in July 2018, which burned over 450,000 acres in Northern California.
The Thomas Fire also ranks among the most destructive wildfires in California history, destroying 1,063 structures and damaging an additional 280, according to Cal Fire.
Ventura, California, was one of the hardest-hit communities with some residents who lost everything in the blaze still in the early stages of the rebuilding process.
“In the City of Ventura, more than 100 structures have been identified as damaged and more than 500 structures have been identified as being destroyed,“ the City of Ventura said.
What caused the Thomas Fire
Officials are still investigating what sparked the historic Thomas Fire, but Southern California Edison (SCE) recently issued a press release stating that their electrical equipment may have contributed to the fire.
“SCE believes that there are at least two separate points where the Thomas Fire started, one in the Anlauf Canyon area of Ventura County and another near Koenigstein Road in the city of Santa Paula,” SCE said.
“SCE believes its electrical equipment was associated with an ignition near Koenigstein Road in Santa Paula,” SCE said.
Witnesses in this area also reported flames breaking out near one of the electric company’s power poles before the Thomas Fire rapidly spread across the area, according to the press release.
“SCE is continuing to analyze the progression of the fire from the Koenigstein Road ignition point and the extent of damages that may be attributable to that ignition,” the company added.
It is still unclear what sparked the second ignition point of the Thomas Fire near Anlauf Canyon.
From fire to floods
While the wildfire was largely contained by the end of 2017, its deadliest impacts were seen during the second week of 2018.
On Jan. 8, 2018, a winter storm unloaded heavy rain over Southern California, including the area in which the Thomas Fire burned.
When rain falls on a fresh burn scar, most of the water runs off and flows downhill due to the lack of vegetation and the inability for the charred ground to absorb water.
The heavy rain event in early January triggered deadly flash floods and debris flows in Montecito, California, destroying over 100 houses, causing 21 fatalities and adding to the overall economic toll from the Thomas Fire.
The death toll from the flooding and debris flows is significantly higher than that the two fatalities reported while the Thomas Fire was still rapidly spreading.
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This burn scar will remain susceptible to additional flooding and debris flows throughout this winter as the ecosystem slowly returns to what it was before the blaze, so people living in the region should remain on alert.
In most cases, it takes at least two years for enough vegetation to return to bun scars to keep the soil in place during heavy rain.
The long road to recovery
Although a year has passed since the fire started, some families are sill early in the early phases of rebuilding following the destructive fire.
Of the 530 homes that have burned in Ventura, California, only 133 rebuilding permits have been issued, according to the Ventura County Star.
Additionally, some families have not received any money from insurance companies after their homes were destroyed by the historic blaze.
“You pay into a system for 40 years, you think it’s going to be there when you need it. It hasn’t come through,” Lisa Zaid told the Ventura County Star.
Even when families receive money from their insurance companies to help rebuild homes, it cannot replace sentimental objects such as photo albums that are lost to the fire.
As some victims continue to work with their insurance companies to help pay to rebuild, fundraisers and donations have poured in from across the country, raising millions of dollars for those directly impacted by the Thomas Fire.
“The response from near and far in support of the [United Way Thomas Fire and Flood Fund] was overwhelming and so meaningful. People wanted to help in any way they could. We even received over 6,000 text and online donations through our mobile giving campaign,” said Eric Harrison, CEO, United Way of Ventura County.
This fund alone raised $4.6 million for those impacted by the Thomas Fire, according to the United Way of Ventura County. They have also given $1.1 million to the United Way of Santa Barbara County to help the neighboring county recover.
Even a year after the destruction, organizations like the United Way are still aiding communities and providing money to families in need.
“We know that the Long-Term Recovery Group is best positioned, along with other partnering groups, to direct the disaster case management to provide the support needed in long-term recovery,” said Harrison. “We’ve designated approximately $1 million from the Thomas Fire and Flood Fund for the Long-Term Recovery efforts to address these needs.”
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