Preventing wildfire destruction

Southern California experiences wildfires every year. However, in December 2017 the area experienced the largest wildfire in California’s modern history – the Thomas fire. Let’s take a closer look at how this fire drastically devastated communities and vegetation…and what’s being done to prevent wildfire destruction in the future.

TRANSCRIPT

Southern California experiences wildfires every year.

However, in December of 2017, the area experienced the largest wildfire in California's modern history -- the Thomas Fire.

Let's take a closer look at how this fire drastically devastated communities and vegetation and what's being done to prevent wildfire destruction in the future.

Southern California, December 2017.

Several massive wildfires attacked the region from all corners, from Southern San Diego County all the way to Northern Ventura County and Santa Barbara.

There were four major fires north of Downtown Los Angeles: the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, the Creek Fire in Sylmar, the Rye Fire in Santa Clarita, and the Skirball Fire on the Sepulveda overpass in West L.A.

The combination of these fires scorched hundreds of square miles and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes, forcing both mandatory and voluntary evacuations throughout several counties.

Any wildfire could have devastating consequences -- the loss of life, the tremendous financial toll.

Then there's the environmental toll.

Scientists explain these disasters can destroy forested areas, damage the habitat of plants and animals, deplete natural resources, cause heavy smog.

The smog from the Thomas Fire can be seen hovering over this hillside.

That's because the ferocious Santa Anna winds have carried this massive plume of gray smoke miles from where the fire is burning.

One of the problems that firefighters have been having is the fact that, here in Southern California, there have been hurricane-force-like winds near 70 miles an hour.

This is something that the SoCal area hasn't seen in decades.

Traveling north on the 101, we eventually arrive at the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

That's where firefighters established their command post.

As exhausted fire crews return from the line of fire, a new shift takes over to do battle with the Thomas Fire.

It's a 24/7 effort -- no rest for the weary.

Our news drone gives you an idea of the enormity of this team effort.

There are more than 500 engines from all over California stationed here with more than 2,500 firefighters.

Chris Harvey is a firefighter here at the command post.

Harvey is with the Sacramento Fire Department and part of CAL FIRE.

We're talking about a fire that's over the size of the City of Detroit at this point.

It's likely to be much larger than that.

It is like a war zone.

You're driving through areas where they're completely burnt out and black.

It looks like a bomb went off.

Gretel Compton lives in Ojai.

She explains the Thomas Fire has surrounded her town.

I want to go home.

I want to see what the damage is.

We have lost part of our house.

I'm just so up in the air.

I don't know what to do.

Where do you start?

I have no water.

I have no power.

I'm on a well, you know?

All of that stuff is burnt.

Other friends and neighbors have lost everything, everything, and now they have to start from scratch, and it's just so heart-wrenching.

After leaving Gretel, we take a tour of The Thacher School in Ojai.

The Thomas Fire has scorched the land around the private high school.

We evacuated all faculty and students Tuesday morning at 1:00 a.m.

When are the students going to be back here?

Decision was made that, given the recovery period and recovering from smoke damage and other things, that we just decided to say the semester was over, so the students will not come back until January.

You're surrounded by the fire.

Uneasy? Not worried?

How you feeling?

Well, you know, initially very, very uneasy.

This is not part of the actual Thomas Fire raging near The Thacher School.

These firefighters are taking preventive measures to stop the Thomas Fire from scorching this hillside next to the school property.

They're conducting a controlled burn.

This is where firefighters prep an area so it burns safely.

Firefighters basically burn this area off so it doesn't burn in an uncontrolled fashion later.

Chris Harvey explained some of these preventive measures when we spoke with him at the Ventura command post earlier.

There's brush-clearing.

We also have some livestock vegetation management where, where possible, we'll get sheep and goats out in these areas to try and graze and knock some of those fire fuels down.

We do use live fire where possible, and, when we can safely do it, We will reduce fire fuels by doing controlled burns or prescribed burns, and then there's physical -- actual removing the fuel, so disking, mowing, plowing, felling trees, removing low-hanging branches.

They'll often cut branches up higher so they can't be ignited -- what we can call ladder fuels, where a fire on the ground will ignite those low-hanging branches.

So there's a number of different techniques that we can use to get those fire fuels reduced.

Wildfires, particularly forest fires, can actually the environment.

They can rid forested areas of dead and decaying matter and provide natural fuel during drought periods.

They can also help the ecosystem balance because they destroy diseased plants and dangerous insects, and the fires even regenerate seeds because of the increased sunlight.

Unfortunately, the Thomas Fire is just wreaking havoc with a perfect storm of conditions to devastate Southern California.

We hiked through part of the Ojai Valley wilderness.

This highway has just been closed off to pedestrians and motorists.

There have been mandatory evacuations all throughout this area.

There are many homes on the other side of this hill, and it's kind of eerie not seeing anyone out here.

This snapshot of the Thomas Fire is a good example of what fire crews are battling from the ground all throughout Ventura County and Ojai.

When you mix urban sprawl with a wilderness setting, this is what you get, and because of the drought that we've had here in Southern California for so many years, the entire Southern California region is now an inferno, and this is how it begins.

Firefighters have left this area because they were concerned that there was, moments ago, a 40-foot wall of flames here.

We decided to drive through here just to give you a look.

I need the mask.

It's bad out here.

Pretty concerned.

We live only about a block-and-a-half away from where we are standing right now.

We have three small children, and, you know, obviously, our first priority, and we have three animals, So our first priority is, you know, us being away from the area and being safe.

While neighbors like the Kellys get their view of the Thomas Fire from the ground, NASA is getting its view of the fire from 70,000 feet aboveground.

A team of NASA scientists is using this high-altitude aircraft to survey the Southern California region to study the environmental impacts the fires are causing.

The aircraft is equipped with a high-tech imaging spectrometer built in NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.

It's called AVIRIS, the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer.

AVIRIS collects images through smoke and dust to study the ground surface below -- things like trees and other foliage that become fuel for wildfires, water content in leaves, particle matter in the air produced from the smoke, and it accurately measures fire temperatures.

While this technology helps scientists learn about wildfire cause and prevention and the collateral damage to the environment, it is still ultimately the boots on the ground that have the best perspective.

We've had a long history of destructive and catastrophic wildfires in Southern California.

We do take a very personal feeling to what's going on here, so I hate to say this, but this could continue to be a very explosive and expansive event.