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What the Thomas Fire Taught Us

A new multimedia story by American Wildfire Experience and MYSTERY RANCH provides alarming insight into just how destructive, deadly, and fast-moving megafires like the Thomas Fire have become

The Thomas Fire burns in the hills above Los Padres National Forest during a firing operation Wednesday December 20th, 2017. The fire was 272,600 acres and 65% contained. (Photo: Stuart Palley for the US Forest)
The Thomas Fire burns in the hills above Los Padres National Forest during a firing operation Wednesday December 20th, 2017. The fire was 272,600 acres and 65% contained.

The images of walls of flame marching down grassy hillsides and encroaching on neighborhoods are disturbing enough, but perhaps the most telling detail from California’s 2017 Thomas Fire isn't a visual but rather a statistic: In the blaze’s first five days, the wind-driven firestorm scorched 155,000 acres—at one point burning new terrain at a rate of one acre per second.

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The Greater Goods Relief Fund is dedicated to those in the Ojai Valley who have been significantly impacted by a disaster or emergency & have little in the way of support. The fund is currently dedicated to Ojai Valley residents affected by the Thomas Fire. 100% of donations go directly to those most in need. Please consider donating to help.

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It’s exactly this type of data-driven and map-based storytelling, complete with vivid photographs, captivating survivor videos, and first-responder interviews, that makes American Wildfire Experience’s Thomas Fire: An Exploration of How We Experience Wildland Fire so compelling. Rather than focusing on a single narrative, the digital project instead unfolds chronologically, starting with the steady drying of the West and ending with the devastating mudslides that followed the flames. Along the way, interactive maps and timelines show precisely how the delay in seasonal rains and the unusually severe and prolonged Santa Ana winds helped create what was, at the time, the largest wildfire in California history.

As powerful as the maps and data are, ultimately it’s the dozens of embedded video interviews with first responders that are most affecting. They remind us—with a poignant tribute to a fallen comrade—of the human lives at stake when society decides to fight fires. “You can’t be a wildland firefighter without experiencing heartache or tragedy,” says Bethany Hannah, founder of American Wildfire Experience and producer of the multimedia story. “When I interviewed the Montecito firefighters they were forthright that they were dealing with trauma, especially from the mudslides that followed the fire. It wasn't something they could prepare for.” That’s a key word: preparation. While the first responders did everything they could to contain the fire and save lives, it’s clear that, as a society, we need to prepare better for the crises that will be created by the new age of megafires we’re now in. Yet as the more recent and even more destructive Camp Fire demonstrated a few months ago, we still have a lot to learn.

MYSTERY RANCH is a proud supporter of the American Wildfire Experience (AWE), which was started by brand ambassador Bethany Hannah in 2017 to house her successful wildland fire oral history and digital storytelling project, The Smokey Generation.  Focused on collecting, preserving, and sharing the stories and histories of wildland firefighters, The Smokey Generation celebrates the community and culture of the wildland fire industry while giving voice to wildland fire itself. Also, in launching new projects and initiatives, like this Thomas Fire project, we aim to illuminate the experience, role, and impact of wildland fire in our communities.

Lead Photo: Stuart Palley for the US Forest