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Oil seeps ignited by Thomas Fire above Ojai still actively, but quietly, burning

Whenever the weather gets hot, Ventura County Fire Department crews are often called to respond to oil spills in the hills above Ojai.

Only they aren't spills — naturally-occurring crude oil seeps right out of the ground here.

When the Thomas Fire set these hillsides ablaze earlier this month, it also ignited these oil seepages. And though the principal risks of the wildfire have since subsided in Ojai, the crude oil is still burning actively, if quietly, in more than 100 places over an area seven miles across.

The risk from these fires is more to health than to homes, said Ventura County Fire spokesman Jason Hodge. These smoldering pockets are not currently endangering any properties, he said — but breathing oil fumes or smoke is associated with a number of health problems.

"The N-95 masks, which everyone is wearing up here," Hodge said, "do no good against it."

The stench of burning oil is strong in the canyons off Sulphur Mountain Road in Upper Ojai.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
The stench of burning oil is strong in the canyons off Sulphur Mountain Road in Upper Ojai.

Hodge shot video of the fires showing crews chopping away with shovels and spades at a mound of earth that looks like it's steaming.

He said in some spots, the pressure of the oil builds under the soil and flames shoot out "like little rockets" — just like in the "fire swamp" scene in the 1987 film "The Princess Bride." (A flippant reporter intended the analogy as an offhand comment, but Hodge confirmed the analogy was apt.)

Extinguishing these fires is tricky. The normal flame-retardant foams are ineffective against these fires because they evaporate too quickly. Instead, Hodge says the department is testing out different products called "encapsulants."

“Instead of evaporating off," Hodge said, an encapsulant "kind of hardens around the [oil] itself that’s burning and that extinguishes it.”

It could take a few weeks to acquire the best product and eventually apply it in all of the 100-or-more spots where these fires are burning, Hodge said.

"We’re actually working with different vendors right now to ensure that [the products they're testing are] effective and environmentally-sound," he said.

Hodge said a hazardous materials specialist is likely to remain assigned to the problem for the next few weeks. In the meantime, he said fire crews don’t want residents attempting to fight these fires themselves.