Ashes to Awe: Reflecting Back on the Thomas Fire

By David Powdrell

In the wake of devastation, the journey from ashes to awe unfolds as I reflect back on the Thomas Fire, the destructive event that etched itself into the history of California.

On the evening of December 4, 2017, when the first embers were reported to have ignited near Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, few could imagine the enormity that would unfold. By the time the fire was deemed contained on January 12, 2018, the fire left behind a trail of damage that shook the state, consuming 281,000 acres, costing over $2.2 billion, and reshaping the landscape forever. But amidst the charred remains, a remarkable story of resilience and renewal unfolded and I wanted to document a small sliver of it.

Come take a stroll with me as I share my experience of hiking and photographing the rebirth of new life after the Thomas Fire.

To stroll the blackened, bleak, charred foothills immediately after the Thomas Fire, one can’t help but wonder how and when and why and where the new life will come from. The landscape has vastly changed. Foreign. Moonlike. Lifeless. Black. Ashy. Somber. Still. The smell of smoke is still prevalent.

For the next several months I explored the Carpinteria foothills, anxious to find and document the first new life after this major wildfire. Which wildflowers would take the lead in bringing life back to the landscape? Which birds would be the first to return to the scene of the devastation? What surprises might unfold in the weeks after a wildfire? 

I started my journey on December 20, 2017 and would take to the foothills on random dates for the next several months, camera in hand. My primary goal: Find and record the first signs of life. On the 22nd day after the fire tore through the Carpinteria foothills, I found it! A single bright green blade of grass standing tall and erect within a vast sea of gray ash.

On that same day I discovered a charred tree branch flexing its muscles exposing an amber branch full of vibrant life.

As the weeks and months passed, the discoveries of new life began popping up everywhere.

Reds, yellows, purples, and greens. A year after the fire, the foothills were alive and teeming with color. The nutrients that fertilize the earth after a wildfire increase soil fertility in remarkable ways. A super bloom was destined and, indeed, occurred in 2019 after a significant rainfall.

Beauty can and does emerge from adversity. Nature, like the human spirit, is resilient.   

– David Powdrell
Just an old accountant with a camera

More photos at: Thomas Fire


Written by bigwavedave

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