By Matt Hamilton / Los Angeles Times
VENTURA, Calif. — As the sun rose Monday morning, Pedro Barba had to settle for imagining what his family was doing without him.
In their Riverside home, Barba’s wife would be fixing hot cocoa and pan dulce for their two children. The three would be readying to open their gifts.
A hundred miles away, the hotshot firefighter was gearing up for another day attacking the Thomas fire, California’s largest wildfire on record. He was one of 1,500 firefighters and crew members working around the clock even on Christmas Day to douse hot spots, maintain containment lines and mop up parts of the more than 280,000 acres charred by the massive blaze.
Barba, 35, wore boots covered with soot and ashes, and looked away as he thought of his homesickness and sense of duty.
“My family’s not happy, but they understood I love fighting,” he said before calling his son and daughter.
Seeing them on a screen was not an option.
“If I do FaceTime, I’ll cry myself,” Barba said. “You want to spend Christmas with your family, but you can’t. Not today.”
Holiday touches were everywhere Monday. Santa and Mrs. Claus (David Munger and Molly Williams of Los Alamos) greeted crews. And fire officials used a giant candy cane to highlight the portions of the map on which units were focusing.
Since it ignited Dec. 4, the fire has destroyed more than a thousand structures, spread from Santa Paula to Ventura and wrapped around Ojai before pushing toward Santa Barbara and inland forests.
The fire is mostly contained now and is not expected to grow.
Pat Russell, deputy chief of the Anaheim Fire Department who is helping to supervise operations, said crews were focusing on Rose Canyon and Hartman Ranch, north of Ojai, as they kept watch for flare-ups.
Patches of unburned vegetation — green islands — are expected to ignite but not to threaten containment lines or structures. Firefighters on the line said they were standing by as these remote swaths of land burned.
The crews said they could feel heat wafting from the vast canyons. They worried that changes in wind could propel another round of flames.
“It’s like a sleeping dragon. Most of the time it stays asleep, but sometimes it doesn’t,” said Tim Price, a firefighter and fisheries biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. “This fire won’t go out until we get extensive rain.”
Rain, however, will bring a new set of threats including mudslides, debris flows and flooding.
The lanes carved out by bulldozers and containment lines built to help stop the fire could become powerful channels of water in a rainstorm, eroding soil and threatening the watershed of the Central Coast.
Price and other firefighters with the Forest Service huddled over an incident map in the bed of a pickup truck as they strategized how to get crews into the remote wilderness near the summit of Pine Mountain.
The crews could dig lines that would allow water to drain off of the larger channels, more readily absorbing into the soil.
Like countless others, Price did his work with his mind never far from his family.
He had spoken to his wife and daughters in Idaho in the morning after they awoke to gifts. His absence was felt.
“They want me to show them how to download apps on their Kindle Fire,” Price said.
Price said he expected to return home in early January, and that he’d probably never work again on Christmas.
Marqui Moss, 23, said she was looking forward to spending Christmas with her brothers in Utah, but then she was called to help.
She’s part of a hand crew that hiked three miles near Fillmore on Monday to monitor an uncontrolled line.
She called her family on Christmas Eve and texted before breakfast in the dining hall, where tamales and vats of hot coffee were available and poinsettias decorated each table.
“Thank goodness for technology,” she said.
Officials said that battling a wildfire in late December was the new reality. Wildfires now were a risk all year long, not just seasonal events.
To help, crews from 19 states joined California firefighters, with about 9,000 people assigned to the fire since it first broke out. Most firefighters have been called home.
Units already had been grappling with fatigue after a fire season marked by extremes, especially the deadly blaze in Santa Rosa, said Robert Baird, director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service.
“The behavior of the North Bay fires and the behavior of this fire in the first 48 hours were wicked in the way they grow unbelievably,” Baird said. “That is a severe threat to the public.”
On Christmas Day, Baird’s seven children were at home up north in Fairfield. He said he wanted to work on the scene all day Monday to show that the sacrifice was shared.
The season has been lucrative for firefighters. Many have more than 1,000 hours of overtime, officials said. Barba, the hotshot firefighter from Riverside, said he has clocked about 900 overtime hours.
The potential rewards, however, come with grave risk.
Cory Iverson, a firefighter from San Diego County, died battling the Thomas fire. Barba’s close friend and fellow firefighter Brent Witham died Aug. 2 battling the Lolo Peak wildfire in Montana.
That specter of death looms over every goodbye.
Barba’s wife got 24 hours’ notice before he left.
“She was really upset,” he said.
Each time the couple speak on the phone, they have a goodbye ritual.
“Be safe and come back,” she says.
“I’m coming back, babe,” he tells her.