Over the past few months California has been grappling with multiple wildfires, including the Thomas Wildfire, which is currently burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties just north of Los Angeles. It began on December 4th just north of Santa Paula and at the time of this post it is 92% contained. Thus far approximately 281,893 acres have burned, causing The Thomas Wildfire to be the largest wildfire in modern California history. Over 100,000 residents were forced to evacuate their homes and over 1,000 structures have been destroyed with a total of $120 million in property losses. At the fire’s height, 8,500 fire fighters were dispatched to fight it. The same area of Southern California is now grappling with deadly mudslides. Unfortunately Garance’s dear friend, Heidi Merrick, was one of those impacted by the Thomas Wildfire and this is her story, in her words.
I can’t remember when the fires started. I know it’s been about four weeks since the Thomas Fire began burning in California, but I can’t remember those first moments when I learned what was happening. What I do remember is the obsessive map checking, the calculations in my mind about when and where the last brush had burned, and the deep fear that if my land burned, the fire would continue to sweep itself all the way through Carpinteria, Montecito, and Santa Barbara. That’s just the way untouched mountains go, the fire follows the brush until it’s gone.
I have a beautiful piece of land just north of Los Angeles that hosts a small apple orchard. We weekend there in the hopes of keeping ourselves and our children normal and balanced alongside our Los Angeles’ lives. The land is halfway between my hometown of Carpinteria and the uber hip and chic Ojai. It’s the perfect representation of my personal psyche. A small coastal town that’s a little hippy and just on point enough to be embarrassed about (picture those Angelenos with the curated lives on Instagram). Our land is connected to Ventura through an ocean facing mountain range that’s almost completely wild and our valley, below Rincon Mountain, connects to the national forest.
We sleep in a large, decked, hunting tent, with a wood burning stove and candelabras. Picture Out of Africa but with kid’s beds and no servants. The cold of the valley demanded more coverage so we were in the midst of building a ‘sleeping shed’ on top of our precipice. New Year’s Eve was supposed to be our first night there.
As the fires burned through Ventura, I said to anyone who’d listen, if it reaches the beach, it will come right up the coast to our land. It did just that, but the countless firemen drew the fire line across Route 150, to protect the farms across the street and next door, and in the hopes that the flames wouldn’t cross over to us.
I called my mom and brother every two hours. I was constantly in contact with the locals, mostly my high school prom dates (all purely platonic as as luck would have it, mainly because my brother is 6’6”). But for days, I couldn’t get to our land to see things for myself because it was forbidden. There were mandatory evacuations and all roads were closed, even to residents. My brother, who lives about 3 miles as the crow flies from our land, stayed at his house despite the mandatory evacuation to do whatever 6’6” dudes do when their homes are threatened with fire.
The third morning after the fires started, I went to yoga, where I mistakenly left my phone on. I heard a phone ring, about five separate times, until I realized the a-hole’s phone was mine. My dad was calling, he was at my land. The entirety of Rincon mountain was burning across the street and our land was surely next in the path of destruction. In the days before I had tried to reassure my mom just how okay I really was by repeatedly telling her, “I have nothing on my land, really, I’m just thinking about my new wellies and my Hemingway book I left in the tent…”
On the phone, my dad explained he was inside our tent; he couldn’t find my wellies, only the book. I sobbed there outside my yoga studio. Not for the loss of, say, a lifetime of antiques I should have told him to grab (seriously, duh), I sobbed because I had given them a need, a way to make it better, and my dad had risked his safety to do so.
There was something terribly sobering about it. After all that, the fire didn’t come from the sea side as expected. It came days later from the mountainside, decimating 50 acres, consuming random treasures and leaving others.
This wasn’t loss or tragedy, this was nature. This was the cycle of life. Five days later, when my husband and I went to see the remains, we had to snake through other peoples’ orchards and out maneuver police to get in. There were five fireman walking through our apple orchards putting out “smokers.” I selfied with them, because, well, I’m still me.
There was a lovely moment in which my husband and I were covered in ash, he was walking ahead and he turned and said, “I’m so happy to be going through this with you.”
I laughed. And the truth is, all the destruction, the desolation, it didn’t change us. I was me and he was he. It didn’t even touch us really. In the light of real danger, you realize how little some things matter. How stuff doesn’t really matter. But other little things, like a husband who reaches back to hold your hand, and a brother who finally got out when he saw 80 foot flames, or a dad who, by his sweet totally mislead actions, reveals that he loves you like a little girl. Those things. Those things really really matter.
Heidi wrote this piece for us a week ago, when we all thought the worst was behind her and her community. Unfortunately heavy rains mixed with burned hillsides have created deadly mudslides in Ventura County and Santa Barbara County. The horror and quickness of such vicious destruction is indescribable. As of now seventeen people are confirmed dead with many more still missing and others stranded, awaiting rescue. There are times in one’s life when words only diminish the significance of an event. This is one of those times. With Heidi’s permission we decided to still run this piece because of its emphasis on loved ones and the fragility of life. We ask you all to hold your loved ones a little tighter tonight.
With love, The Atelier.
You can help those affected by the Thomas Fire and subsequent mudslides by donating here.