Photos courtesy of Captain Thomas Kitahata
According to Cal Fire, the Thomas Fire, which started on December 4 in Ventura County and then expanded north and west into Santa Barbara County, burned almost 270,000 acres as of December 17. The fire was initially fanned by extreme winds, which reached 40 to 50 miles per hour, and extremely low humidity.
As of Sunday morning, 18,000 structures were threatened, 1,020 destroyed and 242 damaged. Among the 7,956 fire personnel trying to contain the fire, at least four were from Pacific Palisades Fire Station 69 (corner of Sunset and Carey).
On December 6, as the Station 69 B-shift came on duty at 5:30 a.m., they learned that only moments earlier the A-shift had been called to the Skirball Fire, raging east of the 405 Freeway near Mulholland Drive. By December 11, this fire was 85 percent contained with 422 acres burned, 12 structures damaged and six structures destroyed.
As the Skirball Fire expanded south towards Sunset, fire officials feared that it would jump the 405 and burn towards the sea, during Red Flag conditions that included low humidity and Santa Ana winds. The cause of the fire was later attributed to a cooking fire at a homeless encampment under the Sepulveda/405 bridge.
“We’re two weeks in a weather pattern that caused this,” said Deputy Chief Charles Butler at an event at Ritrovo restaurant on December 13. During the Skirball Fire, Butler warned residents that firefighters were concerned that “winds would come from the northeast and could push the fire across the freeway.”
Both fires caused unhealthy air conditions. The smoke from the Thomas Fire was so intense in the Palisades on the second day that air quality was unhealthy.
School was cancelled at Palisades High School from Wednesday through Friday.
Other local schools followed suit because of the possibility of necessary evacuations.
Are the Santa Anas unusual for December? Station 69’s Firefighter Rich Tucker said, “September through April is when we have Santa Anas.”
Engineer Brian Koneval, who is also on the B-shift, said “We have to be concerned about wildland fires in the Santa Monica Mountains all the time.”
Since firefighters were called out to fight fires away from the Palisades, the two men had some advice for Palisadians. “If you have an emergency, call 911,” Tucker said. “Do not call the station.”
The firefighters warned that when so many personnel are deployed in so many areas, Station 69 might not be able to respond. By calling 911, “the call will go to a site that can be dispatched to the closest emergency.”
And most importantly, have a “Go Bag” ready (filled with medication, important papers, cellphone) and remember to pack for your pets.
For more information, visit lafd.org/safety/education/ready-set-go.