Clif Simonson was supposed to go to a budget meeting Tuesday. Then the Thomas Fire swept through Ventura County. The manager of the 1,000 acre Bentley Ranch adjacent to the southern part of the Ojai Valley immediately cancelled his plans and headed out in his truck.
He had been here for the ’85 Wheeler Fire which swept through the county and he knew the damage an out of control fire could cause. In addition, the primary power transmission lines to Ojai ran through the ranch, and a major fire could take them out. By the time he and ranch owner Ted Bentley had gotten into his truck and rolled into the back pasture, the fire had already come into Lion Canyon. It had wrapped over to the south and was already eating into the grass south of them.
Simonson knew from his experience in the ’85 fire that if they didn’t act quickly, the fire would move into the brush along Creek Road, Country Club Drive and Persimmon Hill. Firefighters were busy protecting structures and hadn’t yet realized the threat that region of the fire posed to the Ojai Valley. He needed to get the fire turned around to buy time for CalFire to react. Huddling with the Bentley ranch foreman, who had been up all night preparing for the fire’s arrival, they decided to use the ranch’s bulldozer to cut a fire line along the perimeter of the grass fire.
By this time, CalFire firefighters from Monterey had arrived to help with the firefighting effort, along with extra heavy equipment and bulldozers. Unfortunately, the firefighters weren’t local and were unfamiliar with the topography. He took them to the western point of the ranch above Creek Road, showing them where to cut a fire line to Camp Comfort and on the northern boundary of the ranch adjacent to Soule Park. Using the incredible teamwork of the CalFire crews, he guided successive teams of fresh firefighters on local topography and conditions.
The result of the combined work of Simonson, the Bentley Ranch team and CalFire was the successful diversion of the fire away from San Antonio Creek and the city of Ojai and the time to build secondary defenses. The fire was then forced to burn around the ranch, back upwind and slowing its advance.
The next day he focused on infrastructure. It was important to Simonson that cell reception to Ojai stayed up, as that was a main source of communication and information for the land-locked valley. Four different cell carriers had arrays on Black Mountain where the ranch was located. A west-facing array had already been damaged, but there were still arrays located on the ranch and transmitters were still running on battery backup or generators.
Simonson gathered together the chainsaws and heavy equipment from the ranch and began clearing fallen trees and debris from the roads leading to the cell towers. Soon, technicians from the different carriers began arriving along with equipment, repairing damaged generators and maintaining cell service to the valley.
Simonson credited the good work they were able to do protecting the valley below to the solid teamwork between the ranch and CalFire. In addition, he emphasized the importance of proper brush clearance and land management for the lack of damage to structures and utilities on the ranch. Because of the Bentley Ranch’s fastidious approach to fire clearance, the damage from such a large fire to a 1,000 ranch was surprisingly small.