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On The Road Of Destruction To The Thomas Fire

LOS ANGELES — Here i am smoke everywhere.

It’s Monday morning at 10 a.m ., and I’m driving north up California’s famously stunning coastline towards the Thomas fire, the largest and most uncontrolled of five working massive wildfires that have brought devastation to Southern California for the past week. I can see the enormous gloomines ahead from 50 miles back — brown smoking hovering over the southern margin of a flame that had eaten a staggering 230, 000 acres so far.

I’m on my way to Ventura County, where the flame first began on Dec. 4 and from where it was ultimately grow into the fifth biggest in country history over the week that followed. Ventura is an iconic place, a once rugged beach township known for its citrus fruit farming and local surf places, so often overshadowed by its big neighbor, Los Angeles.

Wally Skalij via Getty Images
A humankind strolls along a street as the Thomas fire leaves smoking in Ventura.

By the time I got there, a grey cloud had once again resolved over the district, and smoking filled the air. To the east, a massive burn was rapidly spreading, used to produce thick dark-brown smoke cloud that reached all the way north, to Santa Barbara County. Firefighters and firetrucks peppered the landscape, racing towards the still active segments of the fire while other rigs drove further up the coast. A pizza delivery driver was wearing a dust mask to keep some of the smoke out of his lungs as he carried on with his period.

I made it to Ojai Valley by afternoon. Melted wires from burned telephone poles drooped low or lay tangled on the ground. New smoke from place fires still burned on the side of the road of State Route 150. In the hollow, the smoke reeked of campfires and asphalt, where areas had been blackened in the working day before. I could feel the heat through my clothes where hot spot still burned or smoldered.

Matt Ferner/ HuffPost
A burned-out structure and auto in Southern California’s Ojai Valley.

A town of 7,500 in the Topatopa Mountains, Ojai is world famous for its wine, nearby hiking trails, art galleries and new age stores. The burn “re coming” dangerously close in the first days, but, for now, the small town had been spared from the worst of the blaze.

Now, three massive plumes of smoking surrounded the valley, growing larger by the minute. Dozens of smaller smoke roads caused by spot burns scattered across the landscape were an ominous sign. Who knew whether they would grow larger, too.

I stepped onto the embankment to take a photo of a portion of a ranch that had burned and collapsed, and I sunk into six inches of white ash. The path of destruction the fire had left in the area was dramatic and erratic. Some ranches were burned to the ground, leaving a stone chimney stand, a charred bathtub, and a burned out vehicle with melted tires and windows. Others, often only directly adjacent, seemed pristine — trees still green, horses and kine feeing in their pens.

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

calfire/ google maps
The top map is of the burn areas in Los Angeles. The lower map is the route HuffPost’s reporter took.

Firefighters were everywhere — on almost every street, at the restaurant, the gas station — loading up their trucks for the next oppose. 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’ study were everywhere in the valley. “You kick ash, ” one read, “We enjoy our firefighters, ” another said.

Driving further north, an even thicker layer of cloud surrounded the car. The cloud stretched out from the growing burn in the Santa Ynez Mountains to U.S. 101, onto the hollows, onto the quaint townships 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 stretching — but their leaves were burned off, their trunks blackened and scorched.

Matt Ferner/ HuffPost
Burned palm trees at a tree farm on the shoreline at Faria Beach.

This scene marked the entrance to an area where the fires were still very much active. Dead and succumbing 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 ruby-red — as if the sunlight was setting, the working day long.

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

MARK RALSTON via Getty Images
A family wears masks as they walk through the smoke-filled streets after the Thomas fire swept through Ventura County.

In the sleepy beach the societies of Carpinteria, Summerland and Montecito, chunks of ash — former trees, homes, photographs, remembrances — rained down. The overhanging smoke was denser, blacker than in the southern part. 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 flowers. Smoke poured off of the hillsides. After 30 minutes, my shoulders and chief were coated with ash. My eyes stung as the ash strayed into them.

Gene Blevins/ Reuters

As night set in, locals gleaned on hillsides, sat on top of their vehicles or rooftops, and watched as the burn continued to sneak closer and devastate the ground they call home. Planes and helicopters plummeted cherry-red flame retardant to slow the flame.

The sun eventually determined. The sky turned orange, then dark red, then black, and then orange again — but not from sunlight. It was flame light, which lighted up the coast for miles.

NurPhoto via Getty Images

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