December 2017 witnessed the single largest wildfire in California history. Expanding from a small fire into a massive firestorm the Thomas Fire blazed out of control in Ventura County eventually crossing in to Santa Barbara County. Multiple lives were lost including a firefighter and hundreds of homes, businesses and out buildings were destroyed. The following is our experience surviving a major natural disaster in a RV.
The following is the final part of our 4 part story. Read part 3 by clicking here
The Ventura RV Resort is located on the northwestern end of Ventura. The park is strategically placed in a location that surrounds it on all sides by defensible cleared space. To the west is the 101 freeway, to the east and south is the Ventura Riverbed and 33 Freeway, and to the north is a green farm field and Main St. It was highly unlikely that the brush fire would or could make its way to the park. The problem is the interior of the park.
Ventura RV Resort in the last several years upgraded its facilities adding a large number of large palm trees. In addition, as luck would so have it, earlier that day the park had begun a scheduled roofing upgrade to all of their main buildings. Roofers had just completed removing all of the roofing tiles exposing the underlying raw wood structure. It was these two factors, the palm trees and exposed wood roof of the buildings, that concerned me the most.
What makes Southern California Santa Ana driven fires so dangerous is not the existence of the fire. Instead the danger is found within the wind. 60 mile per hour gusts are capable of sending not just embers but pieces of burning debris flying miles ahead of the actual fire. Should one of those burning embers ignite a palm tree the resulting tree fire would rain flames down on everything below.
The chaos, fear and unbridled adrenalin filled hurry emanating from every living being is something few of us ever really face in our lives. As the Lyft car exited the 101 to Main St the driver’s words summed up the situation perfectly “Oh my God!”.
We were now staring at the face of a wall of flames descending the final hill towards this area of Ventura. Leaping 20-30 feet in the air embers and ash were being blown directly in to the windshield. A stream of cars and trucks, many with people piled in to the back were racing North on to the 101 freeway and out of harms way. About 1/2 mile from the freeway was the entrance to the park. As instructed the driver pull up in front and I leaped out.
Perfectly timed my brother pulled in to the drive and we approached the RV. In comparison to my entrance an hour earlier the park was now alive with action. The manager really showed her stuff by somehow marshaling a full water truck with fire hoses on site near her exposed buildings. In addition she had fired up a large generator powered lighting unit, the type you see on road construction sites, right near the main entrance and exit providing badly needed light to the still power starved area.
The majority of the park guests were up and about but most had not yet departed; instead milling about and watching the flames. I can only guess to the reason for their inaction but upon seeing the hurry and urgency of our actions did it dawn on these folks that now would be a good time to leave. Almost immediately guests started taking direct action to depart.
On a good day I can get the fifth wheel hitched and ready to go in under 30 minutes… but on this evening it was NASCAR time. While I was hitching up my brother was dumping gallons of diesel into the empty tank. The power had been off for about 2 hours by this point and as luck would have it the single battery on our unit did not have enough juice to bring the slides in. With some finagling and pushing from the outside we were able to slowly, painstakingly bring in the slides and prepare the RV for departure.
Pulling out of the park I took a last look back at the flames. They were now at the homes along the mountainside edge (and apparently burning down the hospital that was located in that area). The fire would go on to burn 440 square miles of land and in the aftermath of the firestorm leave a burn scar that was turned into a massive and deadly mudslide. Dec 4 ended for us in a much different way than it began. From the beautiful tranquil beachside hamlet to roaring evacuation zone less than 24 hours later I drove away from this day with some serious lessons learned.
- Always have enough fuel to get out of there.
- In an emergency local media will be unable to properly notify you of the seriousness of a situation.
- Having friends and family you can call on is a must.
- While an RV can take you to amazing destinations it can also, like everything else, put you directly in a disaster zone. Be prepared with an emergency kit at all times.
Our story pales in comparison to the heartbreaking tales of loss and tragedy from this fire. Our experience was more of drama and evacuation but we share it with you in the hope that should you ever find yourself in a major disaster you will have considered your “outs” in advance. We learned our lesson the hard way this has been our story from living on the road and surviving a firestorm in our RV.
Did the Thomas Fire or its aftermath impact your life? Feel free to comment below.
Mark Koep is the founder and CEO of CampgroundViews.com. He is devoted to making camping easier and travels the country in a RV to support this effort. If you find this article interesting please share it with your friends.