The Thomas Fire, now said to be the largest wildfire in California’s recorded history, began during a high-wind event on Dec. 4th, in two separate locations in Ventura County, according to Cal Fire (the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection).
At 6:26 on the evening of Monday, Dec. 4, said the Ventura County Fire Department, a fire broke out to the east of the KOA Campground near Steckel Park, about 2 miles north of Santa Paula. Santa Ana winds gusting up to 80 miles per hour drove the blaze toward Thomas Aquinas College and to the west, across Highway 150 and toward the city of Ventura.
As the fire exploded in intensity, trees exploded into flames and power poles along Highway 150 burned and crashed to the ground.
A little after 7 p.m., according to eyewitnesses, a second fire was started near the top of Koenigstein Road in Upper Ojai by what residents said was a power pole transformer explosion.
Tiarzha Taylor had just come home with her three children. She had just heard about the first fire, and was looking into evacuating when she heard an explosion outside.
“We heard a huge explosion about 30 or 50 feet outside our window,” she said. “We turned and looked and saw sparks falling to the ground and our yard catching on fire. “OK!” I thought. “That’s a lot closer than the fire at Thomas Aquinas.” I ran to get the kids out of there and called 9-1-1.”
Her three children recounted similar stories. “I heard an electrical sound, like a really really loud sound of static, and then an explosion coming from the transformer,” said Karys Everett, age 14. “Then there was a flash of light and sparks like fireworks coming down and then it went dark and the fire started.”
Other residents along Koenigstein Road, which extends north into the mountains overlooking the Ojai Valley, also heard the buzzing sound, as did Darren Hawkins, who lost his home in the blaze. The blaze burned west through the mountains on both sides of rustic Upper Ojai, and through the neighborhoods in and around Summit School, destroying dozens of homes. Rod Thompson, a retired sheriff’s deputy whose family has lived in Upper Ojai for generations, saw the fire from Koenigstein approaching from his home about a mile to the west.
“I got a call from my son and went to look out and, sure enough, coming up from Steckel Park was a big glow,” Thompson said. “We could see flames blowing up the mountain. I thought we had plenty of time to evacuate and with my wife we went to haul out photos and papers and such and then all of a sudden here’s another fire started on Koenigstein. I watched it gain momentum and become a rolling firestorm and I thought we got to go — this is coming so fast.”
At a community meeting at Summit School on Thursday, Dec. 14, Ventura County Fire Division Chief John McNeil confirmed to a packed auditorium the start of the second fire and said, “You couldn’t start a [second] fire at a worse spot.”
Cal Fire spokesman Steve Kaufman said that the Thomas Fire began in two separate places, but pending an investigation could not talk discuss details of the timing or cause of the two separate blazes, which ultimately burned completely around Ojai and into one huge wildfire.
Homeowners Danny Everett and Tiarzha Taylor confirmed that investigators from Cal Fire, the Ventura County Fire Department, and Southern California Edison have been on their property researching the cause of the Koenigstein blaze in the last two weeks.
On Dec. 15, attorney Alexander “Trey” Robertson of Westlake Village filed a class-action suit on behalf of homeowners who lost properties. The suit alleges that Southern California Edison negligence led to the start of the fire, and that the loss of water pressure from Casitas Municipal Water District and city of Ventura lines meant that homeowners and firefighters could not fight the blaze in the hills.
“The complaint we filed in Ventura County Superior Court argues that either the fire was caused by Edison’s construction activities behind the KOA Campground area or by one of their power lines going down,” Robertson said. “We’re not blaming the city of Ventura or Casitas for starting the fire, but as the fire approached Ventura right around 2 a.m., when homeowners were putting out embers in neighborhoods above Foothill, it was as if a switch was thrown and all the water was shut off. The city has admitted it didn’t have backup generators when it was certainly foreseeable that they would lose power. I think that’s why so many homes were lost.”
Robertson said he also planned to file a second lawsuit against Southern California Edison, on behalf of homeowners who lost properties due to what he is calling “the Koenigstein Fire.”
Southern California Edison deferred comment.