Facing down a freight train of fire

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Canada Larga canyon was a windstorm. The trees bent and nearly buckled as the westerly wind howled down the canyon. Smoke smell permeated everything and the moon was a bright blood orange. The fire was coming fast.

Buon Gusto Farms, a local family-run olive oil producer, is nestled in a small micro-climate valley in Sulphur Canyon at the end of Canada Larga Road. This beautiful remote ranch site has olive groves in addition to a home, office and outbuildings conceived and built by owner, Mark Mooring and his family.

On December 4th, with news reports of gusty winds in this protected valley, Mark learned from texts that a fire had started to the east in Santa Paula.

Thinking ahead, he called in support from friends in Port Hueneme and his ranch manager, Jose, who evacuated his family and began deploying the firefighting gear. Within a few hours, Canada Larga was blazing on both sides and it was time to evacuate family members, dogs and boxes packed with valuables.

Mark, and his best friend John, donned their yellow fire gear, helmets, goggles and masks. Jose joined with five 100 foot fire hoses, which were strategically placed around the structures with a focus on the ranch house and Jose’s house.

As the fire worked its way up the canyon, they turned on the roof sprinklers and headed to Sulphur Mountain Road to make sure the escape route was accessible. The panoramic view showed that the fire was spreading to Ventura and Ojai, and had jumped the 33 Freeway, not coming directly toward the ranch.

The fearless three kept watch throughout the night, sleeping in 20 minute increments.

December 5th daylight showed thick smoke laying in the valley like fog. Their closest neighbor, Canada Larga stables, relayed that all their horses and structures had survived except for a hay barn, tractors and other equipment. But fire still burned in patches.

As the day progressed the billows of smoke in Ojai and along Sulphur Mountain Road came ever closer and closer. Winds gusted more.

That day, their band of three was augmented by Mark’s daughter and son-in law. They took to the roof and gave status reports. Fires comin’ was the common theme. “Dad, FLAMES!” was the scream. It was coming… down the steep terrain and canyon behind them. The “freight train” sound of the fire was louder and louder.

The greatest fear was that the 3,000 olive trees would ignite like roman candles and together create a firestorm of their own. The fire raced into the northern hillside orchard. Weeds under the trees danced the flames up into the low olive branches.

Miraculously, the olive trees DID NOT ignite! Much like the mighty oaks around the orchard, the olive trees scorched but did not burn. But the downhill freight train would not be slowed. The 40 foot flames created their own wind. Finally the fire attacked the ranch on 3 sides potentially compromising their exit out. Flames were now 100 feet from the house. In the orchard, olive trees continued scorching as plastic drip lines, sprinklers, tanks and harvesting equipment added to the fuel.

Being off the grid, power and water was self-contained. A 40,000 gallon pond and water pumps provided full firehoses that soaked the ground under the nearby oaks. The roof sprinklers rounded over and over, soaking the structures while the flames surrounded them.

Part of the strategy of living in the remote but beautiful open spaces of Ventura County is to protect farm assets from fire by cattle grazing. Fortunately, Buon Gusto Farms was surrounded by grazed pastures that significantly lowered the fuel levels, significantly lessening the risk to the structures.

As they made their escape, just past the orchard they met a Ventura County Fire Commander’s vehicle. After reassuring him that all were evacuated they accompanied him back to a vantage point where they could view the fire back at the houses.

The Commander said he would send in some strike teams and a helicopter water drop but stated that the homes and other buildings would either survive or not as the fire would burn past them before firefighters could arrive.

The fire department staged three trucks near Canada Larga stables, one truck on the entry road and one truck at the houses. A helicopter dropped water near the office and olive oil storage container. Firefighters put out flare ups along the road and near the house.

All through the ordeal, family members were hearing about the horror of all those whose homes were destroyed and lives in turmoil. According to Mark: “In the end we lost about $30,000 in equipment but that is minuscule and unimportant in comparison to so many others. We were grateful for the resources that were sent from Ventura County Fire and we were blessed to have been able to plan, fight and win!”