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On The Road Of Destruction To The Thomas Fire

December 14
21:43 2017

Further down the road, department of transportation officials chopped down a tree that looked like it was burning from the inside. Others mounted new telephone poles to replace the burned ones.

Firefighters were everywhere ? on almost every street, at the restaurant, the gas station ? loading up their trucks for the next fight. More than 8,000 are currently deployed fighting fires in Southern California. Here in Ojai, they had come from counties up and down the coast. Signs praising the firefighters’ work were everywhere in the valley. “You kick ash,” one read, “We love our firefighters,” another said.

Driving further north, an even thicker layer of haze surrounded the car. The cloud stretched out from the growing fire in the Santa Ynez Mountains to U.S. 101, onto the valleys, onto the quaint towns that coastal California is known for. Through the haze, dozens of palm trees still stood at a tree farm on the shoreline at Faria Beach ? long a landmark among commuters along the stretch ? but their leaves were burned off, their trunks blackened and scorched.

This scene marked the entrance to an area where the fires were still very much active. Dead and dying cactus were left on the scorched hillsides next to U.S. 101, shriveled and brown. Each mile further north, the smoke-filled skies became darker. Whatever sunlight could penetrate through was a deep orange and red ? as if the sun was setting, all day long.

The dense smoke enveloped the iconic beaches ? Mussel Shoals, Rincon Point, Carpinteria State Beach ? and drifted out over the ocean for what looked like miles. Surfers ? ever dedicated and undeterred ? peppered the large swells that rolled in, filling their lungs with smoke.

In the sleepy beach communities of Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito, chunks of ash ? former trees, homes, photographs, memories ? rained down. The overhanging smoke was denser, blacker than in the south. For some locals here, dust masks weren’t enough, with many wearing respirator masks instead. A thin layer of white ash lined the streets and sidewalks in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Parked on a ridge across the valley in Summerland in the late afternoon, I watched the flames leaping high off of the Santa Ynez Mountains, devouring dry trees and plants. Smoke poured off of the hillsides. After 30 minutes, my shoulders and head were coated with ash. My eyes stung as the ash drifted into them.

As night set in, locals gathered on hillsides, sat on top of their cars or rooftops, and watched as the fire continued to creep closer and devastate the land they call home. Planes and helicopters dropped red fire retardant to slow the blaze.

The sun finally set. The sky turned orange, then dark red, then black, and then orange again ? but not from sunlight. It was fire light, which lit up the coast for miles.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.

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