SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Wednesday marks the two-year anniversary of the day the Thomas Fire broke out in Ventura County. The fire sparked in the evening of Monday, Dec. 4 near Thomas Aquinas College, north of Santa Paula.
With much of the area under a Red Flag Warning due to powerful Santa Ana winds and ideal wildfire conditions, the fire exploded within hours, devastating mountain communities in the Ojai Valley before encroaching on the City of Ventura. Hundreds of homes were destroyed overnight.
The heavy winds caused outages to Southern California Edison customers, leaving homes and businesses from Goleta to Ventura County in darkness. More than 260,000 customers were left in the dark, according to the utility.
In the following days, the vehicle of 70-year-old Virginia Pesola of Santa Paula was located. Pesola died in a car crash while fleeing the flames hours after the fire erupted. The Thomas Fire had claimed its first fatality. Ten days after the fire began, Cal Fire Engineer Cory Iverson of Escondido died while battling the fire in the Fillmore area. The two deaths are the only fatalities linked directly to the fire.
The Thomas Fire continued to rage for weeks, eventually making its way into Santa Barbara County, forcing the evacuations of thousands as the fire burned its way down the hills above Santa Barbara.
With persistent winds and a lack of overall precipitation throughout the area, the fire eclipsed the previous acreage records for California wildfires - a record that would hold for only a few months before being surpassed by the Mendocino Complex Fire in Northern California.
Smoke blanketed Santa Barbara and nearby communities, forcing the cancellation of a number of local events. Residents quickly learned about the need for N95 masks, with many incorporating the protective gear into their everyday carry. A lack of foot traffic in the city due to the smoke hit local businesses, as State Street was left empty during the busiest shopping time of the year.
In late December, firefighters began to get a handle on the burning beast. By year's end the fire was functionally put out, although it would not become officially contained until the next major rainfall.
Rainfall which later caused the scorched hillsides to come loose, bringing terror and destruction to the towns below, Montecito hit hardest. The January 9 mudslides resulted in the loss of 23 lives.
Throughout the devastation, a community was strengthened. The loss of lives, homes and businesses brought strangers together. Firefighters, police officers, search and rescue teams, paramedics and more first responders worked tirelessly to save lives. Food banks fed the hungry, hotels housed the displaced, and local nonprofits took care of everything else.
NewsChannel 3 broadcasted on air and online for a week straight with little interruption, providing critical updates throughout the disaster. Our news friends and partners were on the ground to tell the story.
#805Strong became a rally cry, One805 brought joy back into the lives of residents while providing critical support to first responders, and the Bucket Brigade banded together to help those whose lives were forever changed begin the process of rebuilding.
Those affected by the Thomas Fire and the disasters that followed will never fully heal from the damages. The scars will fade as surely as the hillsides will regrow. But galvanized by tragedy, the Santa Barbara and Ventura County communities are united more than ever.
The fire destroyed over a thousand structures, many of them homes, and forever changed the lives of everyone who witnessed the destructive power of mother nature and the equally powerful resilience of humankind.
And it all started with a spark on a windy day.