The Wheeler Fire broke out on July 1, 1985, when an arsonist ignited bushes in Wheeler Gorge, located about 15 miles northwest of Ojai. At the time it began, several other severe fires were burning throughout California and resources were stretched dangerously thin. Although the fire is reported immediately, logistical and communication issues delayed response, and by the time firefighters arrived, the fire had already spread wildly out of control.
For three days, down-canyon winds pushed the fire toward Ojai and into Matilija Canyon. As the fire approached Ojai, firefighters fought it house by house, and by the morning of July 4, the town had been saved, with no houses burned and only 11 structures damaged.
On the fire’s western front, strong winds were pushing the blaze through Matilija Canyon and up over the San Ynez Mountains. At 45,000 acres, the Wheeler Fire became the largest fire ever to be handled by a single team. As resources grew even more scarce due to logistical complications, the command structure all but collapsed before being reorganized on the evening of July 4. With the command structure restored, 125 engines were sent to protect Carpinteria. Luckily, favorable wind conditions pushed the fire back up the mountains and into the backcountry. The fire crept along the hills before it was finally contained on July 14. The Wheeler Fire burned 118,000 acres, 19 homes, 37 outbuildings, and destroyed or damaged $3 million in agricultural resources.