After Thanksgiving, while most of the country was getting ready for the holidays, the largest wildfire in California history ripped through California's central coast, including our hometown of Santa Barbara. It was a monster, 440 square miles, forcing more than 100,000 people to evacuate, and decimating life in Ventura, Ojai, Fillmore, Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito and beyond.
Burning at a rate of almost one acre per second, many local residents didn't even see the fire coming. CNN told us that the fire "would [have burned] through Manhattan's Central Park in about 14 minutes."
It was terrible.
The Thomas Fire turned Santa Barbara into a ghost town. A thick, smoky fog nestled up against the usually picturesque mountains, and stayed there for almost two weeks. The air was hazardous to breathe. It permeated buildings. All of our schools shut down. Air filters sold out. We encouraged our team to leave town because those who remained risked serious health complications.
A bleak view of our future.
But the Thomas Fire, which is now contained, paints a grim picture of America's future; a future where goods are no longer bought in local stores, but instead everything is bought online.
Local businesses in the fire zones were hit hard. Many closed. A few tried to stay open, but found few, if any customers due to the toxic smoke and large evacuation zones. Retail clerks now can't pay their rent. And some, like C'est Cheese, a popular Santa Barbara cafe and cheese shop, are grappling with the reality of having to close for good.
Last week I found a note taped to their door. "We are heartbroken to announce that we have had to close down our cafe for the time being. In addition to the people who have been directly affected, [the Thomas Fire] has also had a severe impact on the local business community." C'est Cheese is not alone.
Ken Oplinger, President of the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce issued his plea in the Independent, one of our local newspapers, "We're asking for people not to do their shopping online. Help local businesses instead."
The true impact of online shopping.
Like massive fires and hurricanes, online giants such as Amazon and Walmart continue their push into every conceivable corner of our lives, from electronics and toilet paper, to groceries and even home repair. I can't help but think of the similarities to the fire that recently gutted our town.
A giant, uncontrolled fire, slowly moving, blowing powerful winds to distribute smoldering embers across our great country, taking over one business and one job at at time.
But this isn't us. We are a nation of entrepreneurs. A nation of brave individuals who take risks to do things that have never been done before, to invest in our communities, our families, and each other. But the winds of change are afoot and they are threatening our very identity.
There is still hope.
The Thomas Fire provided a brief window into what life would be like without our local economy. And it's worse than I ever dreamed. After last year's hurricanes, many in Houston and Florida are experiencing life through the same lens.
As I read further, I found that the owners of C'est Cheese provided a ray of hope at the end of their letter. "We are not asking for charity or donations, there are plenty of people and causes who deserve them more. Our big ask is that in the weeks and months ahead to please just give consideration to where you spend your hard earned money. Small purchases at places you like make a difference (large purchases do too). If you like a place, and want it to stick around, please stop in from time to time and let em' know."
What can we do?
I encourage you to not lose sight of the men and women striving to maintain the world of small business against these powerful online forces. And remember, supporting local business is investing in your community. With that, I'm off to go buy some cheese.