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Manitoulin Island man recalls harrowing escape from the California wildfires

Mindemoya resident Dave Schinbeckler was visiting his son for the holidays when the vacation turned into a flight from terror
Mindemoya resident Dave Schinbeckler’s visit to his son’s home in California turned into a flight from terror, when the family was forced to flee that states deadly wildfires. (Supplied)

MINDEMOYA — It was supposed to be a nice early winter getaway to visit family members in balmy California, but for Mindemoya resident Dave Schinbeckler, things quickly became just a little too warm for comfort.

“I flew into LAX (Los Angles airport) on November 27,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “Graham (his son) picked me up and we drove to Ojai.” Ojai is a community northeast of California’s Ventura County where Mr. Schinbeckler’s son and his son’s partner Amanda live. “We took the 101 (that would be the “Ventura Highway” made famous by the band America’s 1975 hit) out of LA and drove up to 33 right on the coast and followed that 33 miles up to Ojai in the foothills of the Las Padres. There is a national forest there.”

“The community they live in you could describe as upscale hipster,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “There are a lot of people who have an artistic calling.” He settled in for what looked to be a wonderful visit, signing up for a gym membership (Mr. Schinbeckler is still recovering from a bad break in his leg while waterskiing earlier this year). “We were having a good time, meeting his friends and doing touristy stuff,” he recalled of those first few days with his son.

Then came Monday.

“We were home Monday night when around 8 pm the power went off,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. Power going off in the mid-evening is not a common occurrence in upscale Ventura County territory. It flickered on again about an hour later. “Then my cellphone started ringing like crazy and about 9 pm sirens started going off,” he said. Mr. Schinbeckler’s cell gave the first clue of what was to become known as the Thomas Fire, one of the largest (perhaps largest, as it is still in full swing) in state history. “It said ‘severe wildfire alert’,” he recalled.

Ojai is located in a bowl-like depression and messages were coming in from Amanda’s friends saying the whole hillside is on fire. “This is on the outskirts of the city,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “It really is a good-sized city but there is a lot of agriculture surrounding it.”

His cellphone directed people to go to a website “something called ‘’ or something like that” for more information. More on that later.

Outside the sky in the direction of the fire was a bright orange, with smoke and ash billowing skyward.

Soon word was that there were 27,000 people under a mandatory evacuation order. “We weren’t in it…yet,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “But anyone in Ojai was told to start packing their shit.”

The Santa Ana winds are dry and strong, blowing from east to west (despite the nearby Pacific coast to the west) and the fire was being whipped into a terrible inferno. By Tuesday morning, the sky above his son’s Ojai home was an ominous black and orange. Worse, the wind was picking up. About 11 am on Tuesday it was time to book on out of Dodge, or Ojai in this case.

“There are only three ways out of Ojai, basically three highways coming in,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “Two of those were closed.”

The family packed up a few belongings and piled into two small compact cars. “There were four of us in the two small cars, myself, Graham, Amanda and Amanda’s grandmother Gael,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “Gael is in her mid-60s and definitely not frail.” So each car held two of the four people (there were also two little dogs in the mix, more on that later).

“So getting out of town, the only way was to go North on 33,” he said. “For a long time we could look back and see the fire burning on the hillside to the south and west of us.”

Although all of the gas stations along the route were closed and out of gas, the procession was orderly and calm.

“Forget all those Hollywood disaster movies,” laughed Mr. Schinbecker. “There was no panic and nobody was shooting anybody, but there were fire engines screaming through town.”

Out of the danger zone and on the other side of the national forest, the little troupe of refugees were lucky to secure rooms at a small Motel 6 establishment. “Finding somewhere to stay wasn’t that easy,” said Mr. Schinbecker. “There are not that many pet-friendly hotels around.” This is perhaps surprising, as small dogs are all the fashion rage in Ventura County, and Ojai in particular, noted Mr. Schinbeckler. “They are the ultimate fashion accessory.”

One of the many positive things Mr. Schinbeckler noted in the midst of the evacuation was the attention paid to pets that were left behind and the concern expressed for animals. “Graham and Amanda called the local shelter to volunteer and they said ‘please don’t come,’ they had so many volunteers already,” said Mr. Schinbeckler.

One of the most disturbing things he noticed, however, was the dearth of local news available to inform residents. “Because of the amalgamation of news sources, there was no local radio, no local television news,” he said. “All the fire got was a five-minute mention on the national news when 27,000 people were being evacuated. Oh, and an image of a mansion burning on a hill, because mansions burning on hills sell, there was nothing on the other people’s homes. The only place you can get any local news at all is the local community paper.”

Mr. Schinbeckler said that one amazing sight was the convoy of armoured trucks that arrived through the closed gates of television icon Oprah Winfrey’s ranch.

“There are a number of famous people who live in this area, she’s one of the biggest,” he said. “The armoured trucks were there to secure her art collection.” That’s a collection where a single painting tallies in the $75 million range and there are a lot of paintings. “There are Van Gough’s, Monets, Matisses, just an amazing amount of money involved. Everyone was watching wondering ‘what will Oprah do?’ When she was packing up her stuff and getting out, then everybody was following suit.”

The troop headed further afield, but soon found another challenge. “We decided to move from Santa Maria to another Motel 6 in Carpinteria to be closer to Ojai and home. Bad idea,” he said. “The Santa Ana winds have pushed the wildfires to the north and west of Ventura County. The Ojai valley is now under threat from all sides and the wildfires are headed this way. I rented a bike for the afternoon and took a ride down to the beach to get a better look. It wasn’t good.” The Thomas Fire had expanded to 90,000 acres and 50,000 people were now under mandatory evacuation. The smoke was thickening and there was a layer of ash on everything.

That the fire was proving tough was not surprising at all to Mr. Schinbeckler. “If you looked at the terrain, it is all hills and rugged,” he said. “There was no way you would get a fire truck up those hills.”

Instead water bombers, both helicopter and fixed wing, were battling the blaze from the sky. “There was one DC 9 that was dumping 12,000 gallons of fire retardant every 40 minutes,” he said.

“In a Northern Ontario forest fire we are used to highways and roads forming something of a natural firebreak,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “But out west they have a little thing called a tumbleweed.”

In the tinder dry region that is California, where crops are irrigated by quickly depleting aquifers far beneath the desert floor—forming patches of verdant green in an otherwise dissected dry brown vista—a flaming tumbleweed, hurtling through the countryside propelled by the relentless dry Santa Ana winds, makes short work of the barriers formed by the widest of roads. “And there are a lot of tumbleweeds.”

Able to return home, but still on high alert as the winds are anything but predictable and the fire was still a long way from being under control, the Schinbecklers were pleased to find their home had been spared from the fire.

“It was completely random,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “The fire would roar into a neighbourhood and a house would go up in flames, but its neighbours would be spared. Then it would sweep into another part of town and another house would go up in flames.”

There were two very deadly issues with the Ventura County state of emergency readiness that these fires have highlighted. “One is that the cell phone towers are all up on the sides of the hills, the very place where the fire was raging,” said Mr. Schinbeckler, making the towers some of the first casualties. “The other was that the water plant was knocked out early in the game.”

That meant that those firefighters, and people desperately trying to protect their homes, were stripped of one of their most important weapons as the hydrants were too often dry.

That region of California is suffering through a terrible drought, witness the intensity and size of the wildfire. “The reservoir were Ojai gets its water from is down more than a quarter of its size, there are Islands sticking up out of it,” he said.

“Firefighters were being treated like heroes, which they were,” said Mr. Schinbeckler. “When one of them walked into a coffee shop there was no way they could pay for their coffee. If the cashier didn’t wave them off, then the person behind them would insist on paying for it.”

At least one firefighter has lost his life fighting the blaze, with dozens more injured.

As for he and his family, Mr. Schinbeckler said that they were definitely among the lucky ones, and not just because they were spared fire loss.

“We had money and we had cars,” he said. “Small fuel efficient cars with tanks that were three-quarters full when it was time to be evacuated.” Others were not so lucky. “If you didn’t have money or a vehicle of your own, I don’t know what you would have done.”

For the residents the ordeal is far from over even if the fire seems to have moved on—it may still return. When the family got home, they had to wear masks in order to make breathing the air bearable.

The fire has so far consumed the equivalent of more than the footprint of New York City and is still raging. More than 150,000 acres of land has been consumed in an area that is the breadbasket of California.

“On another interesting note, the fire is named the Thomas Fire because of where the fire is believed to have started,” he said. “It is believed to have started near Thomas Aquinas College, north of Santa Paula.”

Once Mr. Schinbeckler was safely on his way home, his ordeal was far from over. “I spent 30 hours getting here from LA,” he said. “It was eight hours in LAX and another 10 hours in Pearson,” he said. “Then my flight was cancelled to Sudbury and I was left scrambling to find another flight.” Ice storms in southern Ontario had grounded the Dash 8 fleets in small airports across the province.

“I just curled up behind a vending machine and hunkered for the night,” he said. “I am just very glad to be home.”