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Scientists puzzle over source of county hot spots

A burning question

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Ventura County firefighters monitor a hot spot on a mountain overlooking Fillmore. While geologists try to figure out why the area below the earth is burning, firefighters are monitoring the spot to ensure a brush fire doesn't ignite.

Courtesy of Ventura County Fire Department

Ventura County firefighters monitor a hot spot on a mountain overlooking Fillmore. While geologists try to figure out why the area below the earth is burning, firefighters are monitoring the spot to ensure a brush fire doesn't ignite.

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One theory behind the latest hot spot is that oil, gas or some other hydrocarbon deep in the soil caught fire and is burning.

Photo by Karen Quincy Loberg

One theory behind the latest hot spot is that oil, gas or some other hydrocarbon deep in the soil caught fire and is burning.

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High atop a steep grass-covered mountain overlooking the Little Sespe Canyon near Fillmore, the earth is on fire.

Wisps of smoke rise from a brown patch of grass that looks like it was toasted under an oven's broiler. Deep down, under the dirt, rocks and grass, something is smoldering and burning, sending smoke through cracks in the parched soil.

It's being called a natural anomaly, a geological whodunit, a scientific puzzler. And it's the second time that scientists have been scratching their heads over the fact the earth under Ventura County is burning.

In 2004, a patch of land northwest of Ojai burned so hot, it started a brush fire that scorched three acres in Los Padres National Forest. Firefighters cleared the grass from the newest area of hot earth near Fillmore on Friday so the same thing won't happen..

Though the outcome of both circumstances is the same — ground hot enough to delaminate boot soles — the reasons they started are likely very different. But both are equally fascinating to those who make their living examining rocks and sediment.

"This is a lot of fun," said Allen King, a former geologist with the U.S. Forest Service who has studied both sites. "I'm retired, but this is what I love to do."

The leading theory behind the latest hot spot is that gas or oil or some other hydrocarbon deep in the soil caught fire and is burning, pushing ground temperatures to 812 degrees. What ignited it or when it started burning is a whole other question.

"We don't know how long this particular thing has been burning," King said.

Firefighters have responded to the area five times since 1987, at times dumping water into the ground to try to quash the flames. King said a landslide hit the area within the past 100 years or so, possibly creating enough friction to start a fire. Another theory is that the land is so dry and parched that all moisture has been sapped from the ground, making it more susceptible to ignition. King said it's possible that some spark on land caused the underground blaze. How long it will burn is anyone's guess.

Such fires aren't uncommon in areas where there is a high concentration of gas or oil underground, he said.

But while the origins of this fire may be a relatively common phenomenon, the one near Ojai is still a puzzle.

"We've been researching it for a while and don't have all the answers," said Scott Minor, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher based in Denver who has made multiple trips to the site. "It's like detective work."

He and other scientists, including King, are hoping to publish a paper on their findings that may be a geologic first.

The anomaly was discovered after the land got so hot, it started a brush fire and burned three acres. Their theory is that there are high concentrations of pyrite — commonly called fool's gold — deep in the earth that were oxidized and converted to another mineral when a flush of oxygen was introduced after a landslide. The oxygen could have come from new fissures in the earth.

The process of converting to a new mineral was an exothermic reaction, releasing heat that could have sparked old carbon-based material — decayed wood or plants — that started the underground blaze.

King stuck a thermometer 14 inches into the ground and got a reading of 550 degrees. One time, the ground was so hot, the glue holding the sole of his boots melted. Grass can burn at 300 degrees.

"After that we were more cautious about standing in one place for too long," he said.

Minor said if a landslide were indeed a factor, it could be a new geologic discovery. The research group he's working with would like to drill down into the earth to see if the materials support the theory but is faced with a few hurdles. The first is funding and the second is the fact that the area is in the Dick Smith Wilderness, where no machinery is permitted.

Until then, the scientists are having fun trying to solve the puzzle.

"It's always neat when you explore something that is new and something that hasn't been documented before," Minor said. "It's fun to speculate, but it's a lot more satisfying when you can nail it down."


Posted by hemlock1262 on August 6, 2008 at 5:22 a.m. (Suggest removal)

maybe we've got our own volcano! save me the airfare to hawaii.

Posted by SoSad on August 6, 2008 at 8:39 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Geothermal Energy

Posted by whatsup805 on August 6, 2008 at 9:09 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Maybe this is a vein from a huge volcano that joins with the Dick Smith wilderness area fire in 2005?
Look it up.....

The geologic mystery is 15 miles north of Santa Barbara, in the Dick Smith Wilderness area, deep within the Los Padres National Forest. The hot spot was discovered by fire crews putting out a fire last summer, and the source of the fire was traced to intense heat from the ground itself.

USGS hydrologist Dr. Robert Mariner hiked out to the hot spot, and found temperatures of 583 degrees Fahrenheit in fumerals -- or steam vents -- about ten or eleven feet down. That's hot enough to ignite wood, and it defied common knowledge.

"There's just no reason to have temperatures in fumerals that hot, unless you are dealing with a volcano," said Mariner.

Posted by THESILKY1 on August 6, 2008 at 9:14 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I think you should call Scully and Moulder, the truth is out there.

Posted by jeff93024 on August 6, 2008 at 9:38 a.m. (Suggest removal)

mmshoot is right. You can connect the dots between hot spots from Sespe Hot Springs all the way to Gaviota Hot Springs, and I'll bet that this new hot spot isn't too far out of range with the ones that are associated with water. In between Sespe and Gaviota, I can think of Wheeler Hot Springs and the nearby Matilija Hot Springs just off of Highway 33, and Big Caliente Hot Springs in the Pendola Valley near the Santa Ynez River Recreation Area. Maybe the Chumash knew of others.

I'm guessing that if anyone were able to map the whole area at night using some kind of thermal imaging technology, they'd find out exactly where the rest of the hot spots are. In fact, wouldn't you imagine that the military and some of the energy companies already know?

Posted by RebelGal on August 6, 2008 at 9:59 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I know that we have the technology to analyze the fumes from the smoke that could tell us if this was a hydrocarbon combustion or steam from the thermal vents that cause the hot springs near by. Why hasn't anyone tested it yet? You don't even really need a sniffer, the smell of burning hydrocarbons is unique. Can the public go?? I'll give it a try and see if it is as easy as I think it is

Posted by Sue on August 6, 2008 at 10:26 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Since it's an anomaly, I'm surprised the Knott family hasn't bought it yet.

Posted by sqlsaint on August 6, 2008 at 11:10 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Anyone know the exact lat/long of the hotspot?
I agree i think the FD should flyover with the thermal imagers - or even a news copter. Some of them have thermal equipment.

Posted by sqlsaint on August 6, 2008 at 11:13 a.m. (Suggest removal)

BTW: The Big Pine Fault cuts through the wilderness from west to east, trending northeast after exiting the wilderness, in the direction of the nearby San Andreas Fault, which is only about 12 miles from the wilderness boundary. The Pine Mountain Fault splits off from the Big Pine; it is visible along the southern slope of nearby Reyes Peak. Source:

Posted by 5thGenerationOxnard on August 6, 2008 at 11:18 a.m. (Suggest removal)

"King stuck a thermometer 14 inches into the ground and got a reading of 550 degrees."

I know it has been a while since many of you were in school but what temp does water boil at? 212 degrees! To get water to 550 degrees it would have to be under tremendous pressure. Enough to shoot 14" of dirt quite a ways. If water was involved at that temp, we'd have our own "Old Faithful", not a hot spot on the ground.

And the hot springs are hot, typically not even at the boiling point and certainly not higher than it. Geothermal energy deep in the ground heats underground aquifers that get pushed to the surface as a spring. Not even close to the situation here.

Posted by earthpal on August 6, 2008 at 11:37 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Could there be a tunnel leading to a metal foreging oven. Some native might be making tools. There might also be a source of water nearby by to quench the hot item shaped in the fire.

Posted by sqlsaint on August 6, 2008 at 12:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Are there still active wells in the area? What is the oil temp clostest to the site? BTW: it seems from my reading that the 550F number is from another hot spot (ojai?) in the area a few years ago. History?!?! If water was introduced in large amounts into the hot spot it would vaporize. If an aquifer was to intrude into the hot spot it would vaporize, if not for the pressure / lack of release...

Posted by CatInAHat on August 6, 2008 at 1:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This portends the coming of one huge earthquake. The Sespe is going to be beach front property.

Posted by sqlsaint on August 6, 2008 at 1:34 p.m. (Suggest removal)

But on the wrong side of the beach!

Posted by VenturaFreak on August 6, 2008 at 1:42 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I do have to say that the first thing that came to my mind was the hot springs just like the first poster...but, as it was pointed out there is a big difference between hot enough to heat water and hot enough to melt glue or rubber. It would be interesting to see that thermal imaging if someone does it. I hope that the idea gets into the right hands, maybe it will give us an idea of just how large of a hot spot we might really be dealing with and how or if it is connected to anything.

Posted by opns on August 6, 2008 at 1:52 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I wonder if this was brought about from the recent earthquake. Should we be preparing for a volcanic eruption, then a major quake to follow?

Posted by sqlsaint on August 6, 2008 at 2:41 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Just to let you all know, I am a home schooling parent, and as an educational institution, we submitted a formal request to NASA to image the area using ASTER a satellite designed for thermal ground imaging. – Be fun to see if they do it…

Posted by Ironhorse on August 6, 2008 at 3:22 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Now if it were my property, I'd be thinking about a closed-loop steam generator, hmmm, I wonder how long this is goint to last?

Posted by CatInAHat on August 6, 2008 at 3:53 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Ironhorse, great idea!

Posted by tim14229 on August 6, 2008 at 4:16 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I remember there were numerous UFO sightings in this area many years ago... possibly a UFO burrowed into the ground and now it's ready to surface and take over the world?


Posted by Gus on August 6, 2008 at 8:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

This could be the biggest clue to why we may be having earthquakes here in California. That is giving an indication that some very BIG earthquake may just be around the corner. The earth is moving wildly under there and perhaps may be California's first baby volcano starting to make its first steps ...Because of that I wonder whether the ocean is coming back to the basin of California Valley...

Posted by lrgvanman on August 6, 2008 at 9:14 p.m. (Suggest removal)

To open sqlsaint's posted link, I posted this amended link because the "Source:" hinders that:

Posted by lrgvanman on August 6, 2008 at 9:19 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I have alot of interest in volcanism here inthe area but seem to have a lot of trouble finding about this area's ancient past. Point Mugu area and Boney Mountain, the Conejo Grade scale area, etc.

Posted by pfg93003 on August 6, 2008 at 10:14 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I blame George Bush and the vast right wing conspiracy. That is why it is happening in a protected area. Send for Super Obama to solve this mystery

Posted by heritagevalley on August 6, 2008 at 10:38 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Yes, global warming is heating up the earths core and George Bush is spraying chemtrails from planes with aluminum particles to reflect sunlight because there are no rain clouds to do it naturally. Looks like he missed a spot.

Now that's a conspiracy theory.

Posted by THESILKY1 on August 6, 2008 at 10:39 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I think this is a hot site to build a new prison (Call Kelso).

P/S THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE! """{}{"{:{{:::>?L:

Posted by heritagevalley on August 6, 2008 at 10:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

By the way, don't drop a Mentos in the crack. Fillmore will explode.

Posted by pmotherat on August 6, 2008 at 11:41 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I'll go with the volcano theory. I hope NASA does a thermal scan. That would answer the question; Are there any more?

Posted by Etrnlife on August 7, 2008 at 11:35 a.m. (Suggest removal)

heritagevalley: Mentos! LOL!

Posted by keem_s on August 7, 2008 at 12:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

why aren't mmshoot's posts showing up anymore VC Star????

Posted by rcamacho on August 7, 2008 at 4:38 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I am a biologist, not a geologist, but I have a bad feeling about this heated area....

Posted by THX1138 on August 7, 2008 at 9:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

If and when a thermal scan is done I hope they check a wide area to perhaps define a pattern.
I wonder if this abnormally is a crack or fissure in the earth's crust[?]. And, if there's a string of these sites across several county's perhaps there's a geological event brewing for the near future...

Posted by ebrockway on August 8, 2008 at 8:54 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Don't the various agencies fighting fires in the affected areas normally do thermal imaging to find hot spots during fire cleanup? Anybody could ask them if they got hits over that area in the past? When was the last fire there? Day Fire go over it or no?

Posted by ebrockway on August 8, 2008 at 9:02 a.m. (Suggest removal)

As an afterthought, doesn't the USGS office in Yellowstone deal with this kind of imaging on a daily basis? Maybe they could be brought in...

Posted by opns on August 8, 2008 at 10:49 a.m. (Suggest removal)

ebrokway, you would of thought the fire department would of had some comment already, unless i missed it. They just got a raise, so they are cheering it up with the gals across there on Seaward.
Remember that one?
Thats our Fire department.

Posted by lizzy91 on August 9, 2008 at 6:09 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I think that Geologists should keep studying this and get down to the bottom of it because this is very dangerous and i really think that it could actually maybe be a volcano forming.

Posted by baitsoaker on August 9, 2008 at noon (Suggest removal)

I love it when dozens of lay people get together and conclude that a massive volcano is forming under Ventura County, a relatively low seismic area with no induction faults. Leave the science to people who know what they're doing and keep the speculation, conspiracy theories and conjecture to yourselves people.

Posted by joanie5 on August 10, 2008 at 5:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I am reading a book called*2013*, the end of days or a new beginning* by Marie D. Jones. It is very interesting and tells of things along this line, while reading it, I thought of the Hot Spot in Fillmore, and came back to the article to read it again. The book is interesting if nothing else

Posted by ebrockway on August 10, 2008 at 6:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)

So nothing to add? You seem to know way more than any of us mere "lay people". Or did you just post that to make youself feel superior?
We talk about it because we LIKE to talk about it.
Even the person imagining an underground tunnel leading to a secret forge had SOMETHING to add. Guess not you...

Posted by opns on August 11, 2008 at 11:11 a.m. (Suggest removal)

ebrockway - yeah you layman - Mr. grandeur has spoken, prepare to be exalted everyone.
gaitsoaker - you don't impress me, so Sh_ut up. your so dictating, my my. Your scarry.

Posted by dweav77 on September 8, 2008 at 5:02 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Alarming news. Volcano, maybe. Given the proximity of the San Andreas, prelude to a major quake is also possible, and the southern end of it is primed for a catastrophic slip. Who knows what might lead up to that?

The strange earthquake activity along an arc from Reno to Yellowstone over the past year or so also has me a little freaked. All these systems are interconnected, and the 2004 Indian Ocean quake seems to have destabilized fault systems globally. We've had about 10 times the number of major quakes since than normal.

As for leaving science to the scientists, most study their area of expertise exclusively. They usually miss the connections between seemingly unrelated clues. Laymen can think outside the box easily, without any conception of what is supposedly "impossible." Humans don't know enough about our planet, solar system, or universe to even guess at what might be possible.

Occam's Razor: basically, all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually correct. Something major seems to be getting ready to happen. You all be careful out there.

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