The Thomas Fire began on the morning of Monday, December 4, 2017, near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula Canyon at 6:35 a.m. Half an hour later, a second fire broke out four miles away in Upper Ojai at the top of Koenigstein Road. The fire expanded into Ventura and moved west, crossing into Santa Barbara County on Saturday, December 9.
Local firefighters received assistance from all over the western United States, peaking at over 8,500 fire personnel. After burning 281,893 acres, destroying 1063 structures, damaging 280 others, and taking the lives of one firefighter and one civilian, the Thomas Fire was fully contained on January 12, 2018.
VOAD member organizations were active in assisting those affected by the fire from evacuation to recovery.
Southern Santa Barbara County saw dangerous air quality levels before the Thomas Fire reached the county line, which led to a rush on air filters and respiratory masks, and school closures in South County.
In addition to donating emergency medical supplies to local healthcare providers and first responders, Direct Relief, an international disaster aid organization based in Goleta, partnered with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department to distribute 400,000 free N-95 respiratory masks.
To fill the gap left by the free and reduced-price school lunch program, Foodbank of Santa Barbara County organized 20 lunch distributions during school closures. These lunches were part of 110 emergency food distributions where the organization provided fresh produce, healthy groceries and nutritious lunches at local churches, schools, businesses, Boys & Girls’ Clubs, neighborhood centers, the Local Assistance Center, and their warehouse and offices. In addition, the Foodbank provided the food and water at the American Red Cross emergency shelter. In total, the Foodbank served 363,475 meals to over 12,400 people.
Easy Lift Transportation, whose mission is to help those with specialized transportation needs access essential programs and services, aided in evacuations from individual homes, transported people to and between evacuation shelters, partnered with United Cerebral Palsy to provide group transportation to their clients, and dispatched drivers to work with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. Between the Thomas Fire and the debris flow that followed, Easy Lift staff spent over 450 hours serving nearly 500 community members.
Humans weren’t the only ones evacuated during the Thomas Fire: Santa Barbara Equine Assistance & Evacuation Team helped house over 1300 animals including cows, alpacas, goats, sheep, geese, pigs and an emu at Earl Warren Showgrounds. “We not only brought animals in but took many of them home,” shared Kathleen O’Connor. “Many of the animals did not have owners who could come and help, so we fed, watered and cleaned many animals throughout the fire.”
Small animals like dogs & cats were welcome at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where the American Red Cross Pacific Coast Chapter set up an emergency evacuation shelter at the campus Multi-Activity Center (MAC). There, the organization offered clean up kits, food and water provided by Foodbank of Santa Barbara, personal care items (medications, clothing and personal hygiene supplies), case work and referrals to recovery resources. From December 4, 2017 to January 26, 2018, the American Red Cross deployed 2,088 volunteers, served 6,749 clients in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, and distributed $457,500 in cash aid.
The Salvation Army California South Division was also on hand at the shelter, serving meals to evacuees. They also served meals at the mobile command center located at the Sears parking lot, and provided emotional and spiritual care to survivors. In Santa Barbara County, the organization served 340 individual meals and provided 148 families with a total of $303,905.57 in financial assistance.
Freedom Warming Centers served affected homeless individuals by opening emergency overnight shelters for 12 nights. Trinity Episcopal Church and Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara took turns hosting an average of 44 homeless individuals each night.
To help the community recover from the Thomas Fire and related debris flow, United Way of Santa Barbara County and United Way of Ventura County established the United Way Thomas Fire & Flood Fund. By July 30, 2018, the United Way had raised more than $4.5 million to aid in the financial recovery of county residents who lost their homes and/or vehicles due to the fire or debris flow and those who lost wages due to business closures related to the disasters. The fund also provided grants to local nonprofit organizations who provided aid during the Thomas Fire and debris flow evacuations and recovery. United Way of Santa Barbara County worked with VOAD to award grants to member organizations, including Easy Lift, which received $16,000 to recover the cost of emergency transportation.
Family Service Agency, a human service organization whose mission includes “helping to create and preserve a healthy community,” was the lead case manager for United Way of Santa Barbara County’s aid applicants. Their casework also included referrals to other community resources, and a partnership with 805UndocuFund to determine which individuals would be better served by Family Service Agency. The organization was also able to provide grocery gift cards and direct financial assistance to 45 individuals and families. Through their Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, Family Service Agency assisted with the evacuation and relocations of residents in affected long-term care facilities. The organization also offered mental health services, including in-classroom counseling at Cleveland Elementary School, Cold Springs School and Santa Barbara High School; individual and family counseling; and a support group for adults. Between the Thomas Fire and debris flow, Family Service Agency served 499 individuals and families, many of whom were affected by both disasters.
The effects of the Thomas Fire continue to reverberate throughout Santa Barbara County. VOAD is thankful for its member organizations who were active during the emergency and continue to help with the recovery.