By the time battalion chief Ira Peshkin and his firefighting crew reached Aera’s Ventura production facility on Dec. 8, the fast-moving Thomas fire was four days old and well on its way to becoming the largest wildfire in California’s history.
Peshkin was part of a strike force from the Kern County Fire Department (KCFD) sent to help battle the blaze that was burning out of control across Ventura County.
Along with five fire engines and 20 crew members, he had been dispatched to nearby Ojai on Dec. 5 to save homes and property there. Three days later, Peshkin and his crew arrived at Aera’s 4,300-acre lease northwest of the city of Ventura.
“The fire had passed through the property and all the vegetation was burned, but Aera’s infrastructure was intact,” says Peshkin, a 20-year KCFD veteran. “Aera personnel had secured the equipment and pipelines, and no employees had been hurt. They did a good job.”
Aera employees had been hard at work defending the oil- and gas-producing site since the wildfire reached it late on Dec. 4. Fueled by high-speed winds and low humidity, the fire swept across the ridges, steep hillsides and ravines of the Aera lease. It knocked out the facility’s power and phone service. To safeguard the area, Aera employees brought oil and gas production to a halt by shutting off the field.
Between Dec. 5 and Dec. 11, Aera put 10 employees to work on 12-hour shifts. Contractors also helped out with 13 people taking turns over 24-hour stints. They operated five water trucks and two water-spewing vacuum trucks for more than a week, soaking the tinder-dry terrain and quenching spot fires.
When Peshkin and his strike team reached the lease, they joined with Aera employees to extinguish still-smoldering embers.
“They had their water trucks and we had our fire engines,” Peshkin remembers. “They showed us where the roads were. It’s a huge area to cover.”
In fact, Aera’s Ventura lease is 7 miles long and 1-mile wide.
Watching the fire was David Shackle, who lives in Las Encinas Mobile Home Park next to Aera’s property. Although it passed within 100 yards of Shackle’s home, the blaze caused no damage to him or his mobile-park neighbors. He credits that to Aera’s pre-fire efforts.
“I’m grateful that Aera did a great job of following the county’s weed-abatement measures,” Shackle says. “Whenever the fire hit a weed-abatement zone, it ran out of things to burn. That helped tremendously.”
Aera employees and contractors also pitched in to help control the fire on the adjoining Taylor Ranch. A major citrus and avocado producer, the ranch sits east of Aera’s leased property.
“Before the fire jumped across Highway 33, it burned through the east side of the lease,” says Chris Majusiak, project manager at Aera’s Ventura facility. “We defended the west side of the lease, which includes Taylor Ranch, and helped keep the fire at bay. There were no firefighters right then because they were busy protecting homes. I believe we helped save Taylor Ranch.”
Aera also is housing some of the ranch’s bee hives, since their regular location was destroyed by the fire.
After the fire
As soon as the fire threat passed, and Southern California Edison could restore its damaged power lines, Aera deployed 11 overhead line crews to return power to the Ventura property. Damaged power poles were repaired or replaced. Within the first week, production had returned to 60 percent of normal.
“People came together to do whatever was necessary,” Majusiak says.
The Thomas fire wasn’t fully contained until mid-January. It killed two people, destroyed at least 1,063 homes and other structures, and burned more than 281,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
Both Peshkin and Majusiak lament the loss of life and property and the fire’s effect on tens of thousands of people. “All of us know somebody who was impacted,” Majusiak says.
But they also recognize the efforts that prevented even worse destruction. “I’m just glad we could be there to help out,” says Peshkin. “The Aera employees were very helpful and nice. They did what they needed to do to defend their property.