Driving south on Hwy 101 from Santa Barbara back home on Friday morning, the air is thick with smoke and ash. Everything is a dull gray. The daylight, such that it is, provides flat, dispersed lighting. There are no shadows; everything is dark and dreary. The hillsides to my right are burnt. Only charred remains exist, some of the bushes are still smoldering, the smoke drifting down across the freeway. The occasional flame can be seen, consuming whatever tiny amount of fuel is left.
Ahead, to my right, on the ocean side of the highway, I catch glimpses of a light flickering brightly, the only color in my field of view. What could be burning? As I get closer, I realize it’s not an inferno; rather it is the play of the sun on the surf. When the wave curls over and down, the sun’s burnt, orange rays reflect back my way. It is sublime and ephemeral. Seconds later I travel past this section of open water, amazed at how, even in the midst of devastation and destruction, there is still great beauty.
This trip almost didn’t happen. The plan at the start of the week was to backpack up the North Fork of Matilija Creek on Wednesday, stay Thursday in Santa Barbara and attend ‘1st Thursday’, then go on a Sierra Club hike out of Ojai on Friday morning. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you know why this didn’t work out. Still, I had a free Hyatt hotel night which had to be used by December 9th, so I scaled back the itinerary; I would attend 1st Thursday and witness part of the fire for myself.
When I awoke on Thursday morning, the 101 was closed between Ventura and Santa Barbara. I almost canceled my reservation, but later in the morning the road opened, and I decided to give it a try, avoiding Sepulveda Pass which had its own issues with fire.
Several miles north of Ventura, I hit a temporary closure. The freeway was shut down for about 30 minutes before reopening. Driving this section of highway was surreal. Brush was burning just on the other side of the guard rails and smoke was drifting down the hillside over the road. There was a gasoline tanker not far ahead of me, the driver earning his hazard pay. As I entered Santa Barbara, it was too early, and smoky, to check into the hotel, so I kept going north on the 101.
The smoke followed me past Santa Barbara and was still present, albeit not as bothersome, in Solvang where there were two exhibits at the Wildling Art Museum I wanted to see, an Advent calendar to buy at Jule Hus Christmas Store, and of course goodies at Mortensen’s Danish Bakery. It was at the Wildling Museum, after thoroughly enjoying “The Student & The Teacher: Theodore Waddell & Isabelle Johnson” exhibition, that I was informed many of the 1st Thursday venues had decided to close due to the fire, understandable, but still disappointing. On the bright side, a few locations were going to stay open.
By Thursday evening the smoke in downtown Santa Barbara had diminished, and while there were still many people walking around with masks, it wasn’t really necessary. As I had been warned, many venues were indeed closed, including SBCAST and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; however, that gave me with more time to spend in those places that did stay open. One of them was the Santa Barbara Historical Museum where they have an exhibit by Edwin Deakin: The Missions of California. This is a phenomenal set of watercolors of the early California Missions. Today, we see the restored buildings, but in the late 1800’s many of the original missions were in disrepair and on the verge of collapse. Deakin’s paintings provide valuable insight into the changing importance placed on these historical landmarks. If I saw nothing else this trip, viewing the Deakin’s collection made it all worthwhile.
The night was still young. I strolled into Distinctive Framing N’ Art where plein-air painter Chris Potter greeted me. Chris lives in Santa Barbara and often ventures into the local backcountry for inspiration. We have one of Chris’s miniatures on display in our home. We talked about some of his latest outdoor paintings, and he told me his favorite place in the Santa Barbara Mountains, which is, as yet, still untouched by the Thomas fire. I scribbled information on my notepad as he shared a couple of other beautiful settings. People often ask how I decide where to go. My best source for information is from local enthusiasts who, like Chris, have spent a good part of their lives exploring their own backyard.
There was one event not officially tied to 1st Thursday which I wanted to see. Susan Guy was sharing her latest artwork at the Press Room in Santa Barbara, and she was donating a portion of the evening sales to the Los Padres Forest Association (LPFA) Trail Care program. While there Susan introduced me to LPFA Executive Director Bryan Conant. I have a couple of Bryan’s backpacking maps of the Santa Barbara backcountry, and we have emailed each other in the past, but this was the first time we had met. We discussed the work LPFA does to maintain the local trails and some of his favorite spots to visit, but we also talked about how the Thomas fire was wreaking havoc on so much of the work the LPFA has done. I vowed to help Bryan and the LPFA on future trail projects to repair the latest damage.
The following morning I took a walk along the beach. The ocean was still, the winds, at least for now, calm. Few people were out, not surprising due to the unhealthy air quality. The sense of foreboding was almost palatable: what would today bring? How far north would the conflagration spread? As I write this, the Thomas fire is 15% contained, but more winds are forecast and with no rain in sight. The only constant in California is fire, and this year the results have been devastating.