‘I Thought For Sure I Was Going to Lose My House”: Humboldt County Strike Team Battles Blaze to Save Residence in Southern California’s Enormous Thomas Fire

A strike team member stands on a burned hillside overlooking homes  Thomas Fire

A strike team member stands on a burned hillside overlooking homes that were saved. [Photo provided by Diana Totten, spokesperson for Briceland Fire]

Over the weekend fierce Santa Ana winds whipped up the already large Thomas Fire which then surged over the Ventura County Line into Santa Barbara County where a Humboldt County strike team is on the lines battling the flames and saving homes.

On Friday, December 8, the  Humboldt County team left Garberville in the early morning hours headed to fight the fire. They have committed to be there for two weeks. The Thomas Fire is already the 5th largest fire in modern California history. It has encompassed over 230,000 acres (360 square miles or about an 11th the size of the entire county of Humboldt.) Over 18,000 structures are threatened and about 644 homes were destroyed.

Without our strike team, more homes would have been burned, according to a resident and one of the strike team. The crew rested overnight on Friday and then got up early on Saturday, the 9th to fight the fire. According to Thomas Norris, Assistant Chief with Salmon Creek Fire who joined Briceland Fire for this incident, “Our strike team was split up working several small fires. Around 11 in the morning we were told to check out some smoke near a residence…Within minutes it…blew up…Luckily we were there first and got most of it out before it burned a house to the ground.”

Humboldt County Strike team in Southern California standing between a home they saved and a burned hillside where flames had raged earlier. Left to right: Damien Roomets, Marty Wansick,  Shawn  Studebaker, and Thomas Norris. [Photo by Dura Williams]

They were stationed in the area of upper Ojai and Sulphur Mountain, according to Dura Williams, a local resident who posted the above photo on the Ojai Community Thomas Fire Network.These guys were fighting fires on our property and neighbors …because the wind picked up and my hillside started to burn. I’m so happy that they were here.”

Strike team battling the Thomas Fire. [Photo by Thomas Norris]

Strike team battling the Thomas Fire. [Photo by Thomas Norris]

We reached Dura Williams today and he told us that he had been running without much sleep for almost a week as he dealt with the fire in his rural neighborhood. But by Saturday, the fire had seemed to have calmed down. He brought his kids back from the motel they had been staying in and was cleaning up his property from earlier encroachments by the Thomas Fire when he called for help with some scattered smoldering embers. When the strike team came, he said, “They noticed another fire. [It] started in my property.”

Flames came down to the road as the team battled the flames. Thomas fire

Flames came down to the road as the team battled the flames. [Photo by Thomas Norris]

Williams said, “The fire pretty much exploded…It literally blew up in a matter of seconds…It jumped from one piece of property to the next…We loaded my kids into my car.” The flames spread so quickly that the approximately eight to ten fire engines with the Humboldt strike team had to spread out across several properties. As he loaded up his children and belongings, he said, “We heard the helicopters coming.” The Briceland fire crew members stayed with him. “They were doing their best to put out the fire,” he said. “I thought for sure I was going to lose my house.”

A helicopter drops water as the Briceland team fights the flames. Thomas fire

A helicopter drops water as the Briceland team fights the flames. [Photo by Thomas Norris]

But he said the helicopters and crew were tenacious and worked well together. “They were all very organized at getting [the flames] out.”

The strike team stayed through the night as they work for 24 hours and then rest 24 hours. “There are close to 10 homes they were putting out embers around the whole night,” Williams said. He added that he was able to grab a couple of solid hours of sleep then because it gave him “peace of mind” to know the crews were there.

Smoke as seen from the firefighter camp yesterday. Thomas Fire

Smoke as seen from the firefighter camp yesterday from the back of the Briceland Fire engine. [Photo by Marty Wansick of Briceland Fire]

Yesterday, the team went back to camp to rest and Williams took stock of what happened. Without the crews, he said, “My house absolutely would have been gone.” Today, he feels his 12-acre property is safe. He survived the Thomas Fire.

Meanwhile, though, the Humboldt County strike team has had their 24 hours of rest, they’ve been debriefed and they are on their way back to battle the smoke, the flames, and the exhaustion as they handle heavy hoses, dig fire lines and stay awake for another 24 hours.

Today, said Norris, “We’re going to a place that is pretty hot and heavy.” They are headed to Kenney Grove Park in Fillmore near avocado fields in the mountains

“The mountains just to the northwest of us are all smoke right now,” Norris said just before he hung up the phone to start another day of battling one of the largest fires the state has ever known.

Thomas fire above avocado groves

Smoke from the mountains above the avocado groves where the strike team will be today. [Photo by Marty Wansick]

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18 comments

  • The Strike Team came out of the Woods, literally to help out LA from burning completely down!!! Great job to ALL those fighting this blaze!!!

  • Don’t forget about the Blue Lake fire crew that is down there helping as well in Ventura. My daughter being one of just a few brave women out of 6K firefighters. Go Nichole!!

  • Good job people. We’re all proud of you. Stay safe!

  • Yes. It is so good to hear updates from these fire fighters who are so selfless in their duties.

  • Blessings on the Briceland Team! I have a cousin down there, and many of us (in the family) have been urging her to sell out and move…for YEARS. She is part of a “gated community” of religious nut-cases which has considered itself apart from the rest of the world…till now.
    Suddenly, Climate Change is starting to register on their scale of threats. Too little, too late, but on the other hand where do people go to escape the coming day of reckoning?
    Oh nuts; not HERE!
    I hope you were able to listen to last Tuesday’s environment show with Dr. McPherson. If not, go to the KMUD archive. It will be worth it to your family’s future. Fore-warned is fore-armed.

  • U guys are rad! On another note anon Forrest… the religion nuts go to heaven on reckoning day. Dahhhh!

  • This is what it is ALL ABOUT. THANK YOU A MILLION TIMES OVER

  • Thank you. All.

  • Thank u Briceland Firefighters!! You are all amazing & we are so proud of you! Stay safe!

  • So proud !!

  • Thank you to all the northern California teams down south working on the fires. Hoopa Tribal Wild Land Fire Crews are also down there as well as many teams from Siskiyou County, USFS, prison crews and state forestry teams.

    You came to our aid this past summer and early fall and we appreciate all your hard work and effort.

    There sure is some beautiful country down south, as well as much agriculture. May the farms be protected as well.

  • I echo the sentiments of thanks, pride and gratitude for our Humboldt fire crews as well as the other NorCal firefighters who have headed to help out our SoCal neighbors! Prayers for protection, containment and an end to the wildfires!

  • I pray for rain for SoCal & safety, health & prosperity for all the firefighters.

  • As a Cal Fire employee and a past volunteer. It is a blessing to see those dedicated volunteers who are willing to disrupt their lives to assist others in their time of need. Fire fighters are only called when someone’s life is in total caos. We have the following states who have sent fire fighting resources to the Thomas fire.
    Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, And vendors from as far east as Wyoming… I am sure I missed a few places but those are the ones that I have seen. Oh and don’t forget the families of the firefighters that are supporting them. They deserve the biggest round of applause !

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