Aviation Firefighting of Huge California Record* Fires. Southern and Northern California. Plus a one year lookback. Also read 2019 Addendum.

Copyright 2017, Doug Robertson, posted on 2017-12-17

I will be uploading Firebomber aircraft photos, some with-others without legible or no visible aircraft registration numbers and fire base support equipment photos to the Airport section of this site, specifically to Santa Paula SZP Airport designated by authorities as the Thomas Fire Firebomber base, rather than to the Aircraft section as this centralizes the horribly destructive fire event to one logical section of this site. Pardon the lengthy sentence, but it gets the logical point across, and interested viewers can go to one place here to summarize my photos, which number about 170 of a day in the event. I made this decision after uploading just a few of the Firebomber aircraft to the Aircraft section, as pairing to the Airport Firebomber Base makes more sense. PLEASE READ NEW MATERIAL of November 14, 2019 below regarding substantial monetary settlement by Southern California Edison Company while (admitting no wrongdoing). I agree that $360 million is "substantial!"


Update on the fire spread. The Thomas blaze of December 4, 2017 is approaching record size for Califoria wild fires. As of last night the fire now has consumed 272,000 acres across Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties and was reported 55% contained. The top California fire was in 2003 in San Diego County that consumed 273,236 acres. The current Thomas fire has destroyed more than 1,000 structures-homes and buildings. At least 104,000 residents have been evacuated or sheltered from homes and businesses in the two counties. Two deaths have resulted so far, a 70 year old woman who evacuated her residence died in her vehicle crash. A 32 year old Firefighter from San Diego on fire site duty perished from burns and smoke inhalation.

The blaze continues to grow in the Matilija and Sespe Wilderness. In Santa Barbara County, 2,000 evacuees were permitted to return to their homes Tuesday the 19th of December. Some 16,000 residents now are still under mandatory evacuation orders. In Santa Barbara County 12,000 people more are in voluntary evacuation zones. On Monday the 18th of December the tally of destruction was 1,032 structures, 760 of which were single-family homes. An entire large apartment complex in Ventura was also consumed. Controlled burns-backfires are being conducted in the Sespe Wilderness. More than 8,000 firefighters from Western states are fighting the fire.

Two Canadair CL-415 specialist firebomber amphibians are now also being used, getting quick replenishment water pickups from Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County and probably based at Santa Barbara Airport KSBA? CL-415s were tested some years ago in the Pacific Ocean off/by Los Angeles County. CL-415s are powered by two P&W(C) PW123AF turboprops of 2,380 SHp each, driving two four bladed constant speed Hamilton Standard props and have wingspan over wingtips of 93 ft, 11 inches.

Check periodically here for more updates on the Thomas Fire. Meanwhile, I will be uploading more SZP Fire Base photos. The fierce Santa Ana winds are somewhat dying down, but the intense fires make their own winds, reportedly up to 60 knots. Air pollution is in danger zones.


I have retitled this article because now the Thomas Fire has become the largest recorded fire in California's history with the blaze as of last night, December 22, reaching 273,400 acres and was then 65% contained. To put that in perspective, the fire is more than 400 square miles in size and growing in Ventura and Santa Barbara County's mountainous areas. A 67 bed psychiatric hospital in the city of Ventura with 67 patients lost two of their five buildings to the fire; these were the ones housing patients, but all were safely evacuated late at night thanks to a good samaritan's warning to management. The more than 1,000 buildings destroyed included now 775 single-family homes.

Low humidity and extremely dry brush from many drought years have contributed to the fire's growth, intensity and have hampered firefighter's efforts in the firefight. Cal Fire has continued to have some firefighters on the line but the firebase at SZP Santa Paula has now been removed. Some fire crews have been relieved with others moving in to continue fighting the fire. One of the relief teams from new, multiple agencies is the Ventura County Fire Department. I was at SZP again this morning and only have cogent photos of the FireBase food semi-trailer truck leaving, all other traces of the Thomas Fire Helibase are now completely removed, and SZP private and flight training aircraft are pattern flying again. The fire area is restricted/banned to General Aviation. One photo I took of the smoke in the northern mountain skies this morning from SZP just shows a wispy trace of fire smoke in the otherwise now bright blue skies. I have many earlier firebase photos still to upload and it will take some time to get to today's photos taken at SZP. Thank you for reading.


The latest update 2017-12-24 on the Thomas Fire remaining at 273,400 acres equates to more than 427 square miles burned in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Structures destroyed number 1,063 with another 280 damaged.  Single-family homes constitute 775 of the destroyed structures. A containment figure of 70% was published as of yesterday. Over 8,000 firefighters at the peak of the blaze are now down to more than 1,500 personnel remaining on duty on 23 December. There are still hot spots north of Ojai in wilderness areas along Highhway 33. The steep, rugged terrain burning there is using aircraft retardant air drops probably from Santa Barbara airport.

 A new, separate blaze threatening three Ventura homes near Camino Real Park that brokeout after midnight 24 December in a barranca along the northern edge of Highway 126, east of the junction with Highway 101 was quelled by Ventura firemen within 40 minutes, but firefighters stayed on for several hours to completely extinguish the blaze. Cause is under investigation. No injuries were reported. 


The Thomas Fire has now burned more than 281,620 acres, or about 440 square miles. Controlled burns to halt the fire have enlarged somewhat the acreage count but are necesssary to halt the fire's paths with strong wind conditions. The rugged mountainous steep terrain country fire is best controlled now by water drops from aircraft, as ground access is difficult or impossible. Rain is not expected over the next few days so dry conditions may stave off mudslides and other issues that may occur in the huge fire's aftermath.  Firemen worked through Christmas on quelling this gigantic and costly fire.


The Thomas Fire is now reported as 92% contained. Burned acreage was last reported at 281,893 acres. A large issue now is the expected mudslides from the barren, burned slopes in our rainy season that commenced this last October 1st. Ventura County has had only 0.06 inch of rain so far this annual rain season contrasted with 3.84 inches by this same time in the just-prior rainy season. Tremendous mud slides are expected from the scorched, burned now bare hill slopes and mountains over the next three to five years if still denuded, which is expected. So, many homes are still in danger of that.

A colossal mudslide triggered by rain flowed over a then newish deluxe home tract near the base of the Conejo Grade of the 101 Freeway in Ventura County several years ago under similar circumstances, destroying many houses.

A mixture of a specialized foam concentrate and water is being used by the firefighters to the oil seepage areas which began to smolder.  Natural oil seeps are contributing to fuel for the fire in Upper Ojai, some catching fire from the heat of the fire. Some 620 firefighters are now still fighting the fire.


The Thomas Fire is nearing full containment and firemen are turning to rehabilitation and repair of burned landscape areas. The fire is at the same containment and size as last reported. About half of the 600 or so remaining firefighters have been discharged from fire-fighting duty. No further structures have burned. Fire personnel are now concentrating on fixing terrain damaged by the fire. They have dug more than 20 miles of trench-like bulldozer lines used as firebreaks. Hot spots will be allowed to burn out, but with monitoring.

A flareup yesterday morning spread near Gibralter Road and produced smoke over Santa Barbara. The windy mountain pass has many million dollar homes surrounded by grass, trees and bushes. Two hand crews, one fire engine and two helicopters worked to put out the flames before posing a threat to the homes. The very dry conditions were of no help with the flareup. A new Fire Command Center should be up by 31 December.


As of last night, December 31, the Thomas fire is still burning in some wilderness areas, but the containment is still 92% and 405 personnel are now working on the disaster, some with bulldozers. No more people or homes are threatened by the fire at present. Headquarters of the fire fight has moved to the Los Prietos Ranger Station on Paradise Road above Santa Barbara. The changed command effort is now being overseen by the Los Padres National Forest. The fire's cause is under investigation.


Statistics remain the same for the contained Thomas fire. Forecasted rain threat of 2 to 4 inches in the mountains and foothills next week poses a huge mudslide problem for the burn area. Helicopter targeted water drops on blaze areas continue with over 400 personnel still active in fighting, repairing and monitoring the Bear Heaven area of the Los Padres National Forest after similar water drops were effective in the Rose Valley and Hartman Ranch area. Infrared aerial surveillance is in use. The Ventura County District Attorney is warning victims who suffered losses to beware of and avoid scams, which appeared in past Northern California fire victims' experiences. And, class action lawsuits re the massive fire's cause are emerging. There are huge crop tree losses by avocado growers and lemon tree growers also.


Unfortunately, as predicted the forecasted season rains produced severe mudslides in the Thomas Fire area that have killed 18 known people in Montecito above Santa Barbara thus far, injured 28 and destroyed 100 homes. Four victims were in critical condition. Ages of the deceased victims ranged from a 3 year old to an 84 year old. Four victims were children. Searchers are still looking for more victims. Highway 101 is still closed to traffic; that area served about 95,000 cars count per day from Milpas Street in Santa Barbara to Highway 150, and is the area of closure. The present mudslide disaster now tops the nearby La Conchita coastal community mudslide of January 10, 2005 that killed 10 people and destroyed many homes. La Conchita streets are still sandbagged. Four helicopters are aiding in the search for more victims. East Valley Road homes were knocked off their foundation by the current massives slides. Mud and boulders the size of a compact car were reported. K-9 Search dogs teams numbering 29 are being used also to find unaccounted-for residents in the Montecito area. Unfortunately too, the timeline for finding survivors is closing. And, some firefighters' homes were also destroyed, taking it's toll on them.


The Thomas fire as of January 12 is now officially declared fully contained at 281,893 acres burned. Infrared and helicopter flights confirmed the 100% containment. However, severe short but powerful rains especially in Santa Barbara County have unleashed tons of mud and boulders with flooding that have destroyed many homes, especially in the Montecito area which is under mandatory evacuation. One measurement of rainfall was 0.83 inch in 15 minutes, which is extreme rain. Search crews with trained dogs are still combing the mudslide area for more victims. Not all residents in the slide areas are accounted for. Highway 101 as discussed above is still closed, but AmTrak Pacific Surfliner and cargo trains are now again running along the Highway 101 track area, which is between the 101 freeway and the Pacific Ocean. On Sunday, 14 January the overall operation transitioned from search and rescue to search and recovery at a slower and safer pace, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff.


The death toll in the Montecito landslide area has now risen to 21, with 2 people yet accounted for. K-9 search dog crews are still active in the search. Many single family homes have been destroyed, with final revised count 717 destroyed, and 462 more damaged by the mud and rock slides. The Highway 101 has been fully open now for some time. The area water supply is undrinkable, natural gas, electric power, the internet and cable are disrupted or unreliable. This catastrophe may re-arise over 3-5 years of arboreal and wild grasses growth until the mountain slopes are re-vegetated sufficient to stabilize the burned-out soil areas. Most homeowners in the mountainous slopes area do not have flood insurance. This will perhaps be my last article update as aircraft are no longer deployed in the area to fire-fight. 


 *The record Thomas fire has been topped in size for some time now in Northern California by the huge Mendocino County Fire mainly in the Mendocino National Forest. Mendocino County is northwest of San Francisco with less media coverage in my Southern California area. Mendocino County is mainly a large forested rural area with less population affected. The years 2017 and 2018 have not been kind to California, huge firestorms and lack of rain-wise.


The Thomas Fire lookback-One Year later.

The Thomas Fire required assistance from multiple sources-over 8,500 firefighters from Arizona, Washington, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and from across California were stationed at the Ventura Fairgrounds staging area through December 2017. The fire cost over $230 million to suppress. Cumulative estimated value of loss due to the Thomas Fire including agriculture losses, the Montecino mudslides and lost business-$1.8 billion, based on insurance claims. Agricultural losses involved 2,068 acres of assorted crops with an estimated total of $171 million due to damage to then current and future crops, machinery, equipment and farm structures.



A settlement has finally been reached with Southern Californa Edison admitting no wrongdoing in monetary settlement over the fires in the Thomas and later Woolsey Fires. They will pay $360 million dollars to public entities. The Thomas Fire case will have a $150 million settlement, announced this week by an attorney with a law firm representing some of the 23 affected entities with the later Woolsey Fire entities lawsuits receiving $210 million dollars. The Thomas fire settlement also includes damages for the January 9, 2018 Montecino mudslides. Edison is NOT admitting any wrongdoing or liability, but a spokesman for the company said the settlement "represents a compromise that recognizes the risks of litigation".

The Woolsey Fire started on November 8, 2018, southeast of Simi Valley and raced through part of the Conejo Valley and finally reached Malibu, burning nearly 97,000 acres. It claimed three lives and destroyed more than 1,000 structures.


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