Two Fires of 2018 Through an OBcean’s Eyes

by on December 27, 2018 · 1 comment

in California, Ocean Beach

by Bob Edwards

Last week the OB Rag published my story about experiences with wildfires that I’ve had over the 60 plus years I’ve lived in California. I did not include the most recent fires because the unbelievable conflagrations of 2018 warrant their own chapter.

This past year (really the past five months!) has seen the worst cluster of fires to ever hit California.

Since July, we have had the largest wildfire in California history (the Mendocino Complex Fire) as well as three of the top ten destructive fires to ever burn in our state (the Carr, Woolsey, and Camp Fires).

I have no personal connections or stories to relate about the Mendocino Fire but the other three touched the lives of friends and family as well as my own. In this article I’ll tell some stories of the Carr and Woolsey Fires. (Next week the Rag will publish an article about the Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in the United States since 1918 including a report about the trip that two people from the OB/Point Loma area made up to Northern California to help out the fire victims.)

Trinity Alley, Old Shasta California: The House where Bob Edwards was married. (Photo by Bob Edwards)

The Carr Fire started on July 23rd near Whiskeytown Lake, west of Redding. A trailer being towed had a flat tire and the bare metal rim of the wheel scraped the roadway scattering sparks along a stretch of Highway 299 which then ignited vegetation. Heavy winds blew the fire towards Redding, decimating the towns of Old Shasta, Keswick, Lewiston, and French Gulch. “Fire tornadoes” that reached a height of 18,000 feet were observed during this blaze with winds in excess of 140 mph. Eight people were killed and over a thousand homes destroyed.

Trinity Alley, Old Shasta California. (Photo by Bob Edwards)

I had lived in the town of Old Shasta back in the early 1980s and built a small guest house on the property of some friends near Keswick that same decade. The Carr Fire, in a matter of hours, destroyed about 195 of the 200 homes in the Keswick Water District. Fortunately, my friends’ home and the repurposed guest house (now a workshop and storage shed) were among the few structures in the area that were spared, thanks to the heroic efforts of an unknown company of fire fighters.

The fire burned within 50 feet of the home. I visited our friends there in October and took some of the accompanying photos.  It was amazing to see their gardens, lush and green with ripening tomatoes, unscathed just yards from scorched hillsides that were barren except for the skeletal remains of digger pines and manzanita. Smaller shrubs which burned hot and quickly were reduced to circles of white ash dotting the blackened hillside. I asked my buddy if we could eat some of the tomatoes and he warned me that they were unsafe.

Aerial picture of friends’ home (lower left) in Shasta County, saved by fire fighters.

He explained that a FEMA representative had come by and advised destroying the veggies because the massive flames had vaporized hillsides of poison oak and numerous structures, spreading clouds of toxic gasses which might have settled on the plants. The fire was so hot, the FEMA rep said, that it had even caused septic tanks to boil, blowing the lids off the tanks and aerosolizing clouds of sewage which also might have contaminated the area.

When the fire first started towards my friends’ home, they grabbed their valuables and evacuated to another friend’s home some miles away but had to leave that house as fire continue to spread and endanger the friend’s home. They then moved their cars and property to ANOTHER friend’s home and had to evacuate from there as the fire raged towards Redding and the Sacramento River.

Woolsey Fire looking towards Malibu from Calabasas (photo by Edwards Family)

Night had fallen and many areas had power outages. It was dark and it took them awhile to figure out how to get their precious things out of the garage which had an electric door opener that was stuck closed.  As they evacuated towards a third friend’s home, they joined thousands of other residents in a massive traffic jam trying to leave the fire areas.

They were trapped in gridlock as the fire moved towards them. They could see at least three towering pyrocumulus fire clouds as the flames headed their way and they were helpless and unable to go anywhere. Other drivers were panicking, driving on the road’s shoulder and trying to get around the stopped vehicles. One smashed into a police car, further blocking the escape route.  According to one fire fighter who spoke at a debriefing a week later, a fortunate wind change occurred right at that moment and blew the fire away from the area of gridlock. If it had not, hundreds of people would probably have lost their lives.

Eventually traffic cleared and my friends made their escape.

Woolsey Fire, Calabasas neighborhood evacuating (photo by Edwards Family)

As the fire swept through these rural hamlets and towards the city limits of Redding, it destroyed 1600 structures including the 150 year old rental home where I got married 35 years ago. Numerous other homes and parts of the Shasta State Historical Park that dated back to the Gold Rush days were destroyed.

Once the fire was out and our friends returned to their home they had to deal with a refrigerator filled with rotten food and major smoke damage to their home and belongings. They were traumatized having nearly died and having seen their entire community leveled, but at least they had a home, unlike so many of their neighbors.

The old MASH television set before the Woolsey fire (photo Bob Edwards)

We stayed with our friends for a few days and provided emotional support and helped cut down the burned skeletons of trees, gathering the remaining slash into piles to be burned this winter once there is no further fire danger.  They plan to sow wildfire seeds on the surrounding acreage after doing some bulldozer work to divert water and mud runoff which will certainly create major problems this winter.

I thought that was it for 2018’s fires, but on November 8, two wildfires broke out at opposite ends of the state.

Just north of Los Angeles, the Woolsey fire burned 1,600 structures including 177 homes. It was a big news story because it threatened many celebrities’ homes, burning a house belonging to Neil Young and Darryl Hannah among others.  More than a quarter million people were evacuated.

Tunnel and Hillside along Kanan Dume Road (photo by Colleen Edwards)

I have family ties in northern LA and southern Ventura counties so this fire really hit home. My brother lives in Calabasas, inland from Malibu near Topanga Canyon. His entire neighborhood was ordered evacuated even though the fire did not appear to be imminently threatening to him. He decided to stay put and keep an eye on his home even though there was no power and air quality was terrible. Although the fire burned many other homes and thousands of acres of California chaparral wildlands, my brother’s neighborhood was spared.

A few weeks later, I was up in the area to celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. We accompanied my niece as she photographed the fire damage for a photojournalism class she is taking. We drove a loop through Malibu and Agoura Hills that included Mulholland Highway, Malibu Canyon, Pacific Coast Highway and Kanan Dume Road.

WWII Veteran Jim Shira outside his Malibu home (photo by Colleen Edwards)

The fire damage was shocking.

We saw miles of hillsides that were burned in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and clusters of houses that were burned to the foundations. The flames burned all the way to the coast highway in some places. The beautiful little neighborhood of Malibou Lake was hit particularly hard as were some of the movie sets and studio backlots that dot the oak covered hills.

One of our favorite hikes has been to the MASH set, where they filmed the opening and exterior shots for the popular 1970s TV situation comedy. Though the trails into the MASH site were closed, news reports indicate that it was incinerated.

Malibou Lake home after the Woolsey Fire (photo by Colleen Edwards)

My niece made several trips to the burn area while documenting the story for her class. She  met 92 year old WW II veteran, Jim Shira and his wife Marcella who sat in lawn chairs, watching as their family sifted through the ashes of their home on Kanan Dume Road, inland from Malibu. Mr. Shira said that he had a previous home on the site that burned in the 1970s. He rebuilt then and intends to rebuild again.

Malibou Lake burned cars (photo by Colleen Edwards)

Since these fires, there has been much discussion regarding the wisdom of re-building burned homes in wildfire-prone areas. There is also a lot of concern over new construction in the “urban/wildlands interface”.

LA County just approved a 19,000 home project in the Tejon Ranch area near the Grapevine along Interstate 5, an area that has suffered massive burns in the past and will certainly suffer them again in the future.

Woolsey Fire Aftermath (photo by Colleen Edwards)

Look for a future OB Rag article about this and other controversial issues such as our president’s suggestion that better “forest management” (code words for massive logging, a gift to corporate interests) as well as his suggestion that raking forests might be the solution.

And don’t miss part 3 of this wildfire series with first person accounts of the response to the massive Camp Fire which destroyed most of the town of Paradise in northern California. As mentioned above, that article will include the story of two Ocean Beach women who have tried to help out the victims of the fire.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Seth December 28, 2018 at 4:19 am

Left OB about 4 years ago to work in wildfire recovery/forest management in the Central Sierra for an environmental nonprofit. A few thoughts about what is happening…

First and foremost, forests in the North American West are a free-adapted ecology. They are supposed to burn, albeit in smaller fires and not the megafires we are seeing today. The biggest single reason we are seeing larger and more destructive fires is decades worth of fire suppression. Preventing fires, which was done primarily to save homes and lives of people living in the WUI, has left our forests in California overgrown with too many trees. This is now being greatly exacerbated by a warming, drying climate that has reduced snowpack, facilitated bark beetle-caused tree mortality, and left our forests bone dry and set to burn for longer periods of the year.

What we are seeing is not an anomaly, it is the very beginning of exponential growth of a toxic mixture of the fire of forest mismanagement and the gasoline of climate change. The new normal is increasing instability. The “hockey stick” of climate change cited by Al Gore is not some far-off, theoretical exercise. It is happening in real-time, at an unprecedented pace and scale. Given the impact on the state’s natural resources, and water supply in particular, nowhere near attention is being paid to this issue by urban residents in California, who are often getting misinformation on every single point of this, even from major environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, who are locked into an obsolete obstructionist war with enemies from years ago.

Solutions are few and far between, and it feels a bit like Pickett’s Charge on the front lines. Truth is, there is no way out from here. We bought the ticket, and we will take the ride. I will say that while more logging wouldn’t have prevented the problem, and won’t solve it now, it is still a net positive in the equation from where we are now. The idea that logging is evil is not only outdated, it is straight up dangerous, and people need to get that thought out of their minds right now. The only way to prevent more Paradise fires is to perform widespread tree thinning and prescribed burning, and the former will need to be highly subsidized due to a lack of market value, mill capacity, and profitability in the emerging biomass industry.

In sum, buckle up. This is just the tip of the iceberg on the topic, and only one environmental problem of many headed our way in short order.


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