VENTURA, Calif. – As the largest wildfire in the state’s history, the Thomas Fire generated some staggering statistics. It burned 281,893 acres (440 square miles). At its most devastating, it was being fought by an army of firefighters more than 8,000 strong. More than 1,000 structures were destroyed. And the fire’s most-sobering statistic is the 23 fatalities – including one firefighter – which resulted from the fire and its associated debris flow. The statistics since then are much more hopeful.
The County of Ventura, in cooperation with the cities of Ventura, Santa Paula, Ojai and Fillmore, initiated a fire recovery process weeks before the fire was even declared contained. The Ventura County Recovers website was launched on December 8, 2017, five days after the fire started. Since then it has had more than 45,000 unique visitors and about 200,000 page views.
“We understood early on that there would be a tremendous need for fire recovery information, and that it would have to be a cooperative effort,” said Mike Powers, County Executive Officer. “The fire crossed many jurisdictional boundaries and our recovery process would have to do the same thing. The cities enthusiastically supported a unified approach and the result has been a streamlined, efficient and compassionate process.”
A Local Assistance Center was opened in Ventura on December 13. Staffed by more than 40 city, county, state, federal and non-profit agencies, it served 1,950 families while it was open. The center offered assistance with health issues, housing, vital records, debris removal, and much more. Smaller centers operated in Ojai and Santa Paula.
On December 26, the Board of Supervisors approved the County’s participation in the California Office of Emergency Services debris removal program. The no-cost program removes both hazardous materials and fire debris from homeowner’s property. The Environmental Health Division of the County’s Resource Management Agency has processed 665 Right-of-Entry forms for the program and is still accepting applications.
The property damage caused by the Thomas Fire was unprecedented in Ventura County, and the need for information was critical. The website helped, but the County and the cities wanted to be sure the public knew their local governments were active and engaged. As a result, 13 community town hall meetings were held at locations around the county, primarily to address debris removal concerns and now, federal assistance programs.
“We will continue to hold community meetings for as long as it takes to get information out to people,” said Matt Carroll, the County’s Fire Recovery Director. “The people who have been affected by the fire have suffered terrible losses, we want to make local government personal for them.”
As the recovery process goes on, the assistance numbers continue to grow. As of today:
- The Treasurer-Tax collector’s office has waived 180 late fees for fire victims and first responders.
- Emergency Medical Services has distributed 731,280 face masks.
- Behavioral Health made 4,000 contacts during the fire response.
- The County Clerk and Recorder’s office has provided assistance to 314 fire victims and provided copies of 694 public records at no cost.
- The County Public Works Agency has stockpiled and begun distribution of 45,000 sandbags and coordinated another 20,000 for the city of Ventura.
- 987 properties have been cleared of hazardous debris with only a handful of properties remaining.
- 665 properties have been registered for the state’s CalRecycle burn debris removal program.
- The County is working 181 active cases for fire victims needing housing. Thirty-three families have received assistance to date and eighteen have been permanently housed. The Assessor’s office has surveyed more than 2,000 fire-damaged properties.
The statistics are endless, almost every County agency and department has played a role in either the fire response or the recovery.
As a next step, the County’s Office of Emergency Services is finalizing detailed flood debris flow models as well as tailored evacuation strategies and plans around all County burn areas. A public outreach and education campaign to share this information will begin with a series of town hall meetings beginning in February.
“The response to the Thomas Fire has shown what makes Ventura County so special,” said Powers. “Not only did all of our County agencies work together seamlessly, so did our city partners, our elected officials and the state and federal agencies who were here to help. Ventura County Recovers is not just a website, it’s a statement of fact.”