22K Calif. residents self-evacuate to escape wildfires

Residents questioned why they were never warned they would need to evacuate; fire officials say resources have been stretched thin due to dozens of blazes

Sarah Ravani and Megan Cassidy
San Francisco Chronicle

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — There were no sirens, no evacuation orders and no deputies banging on the doors Tuesday evening on Whitehouse Canyon Road in a remote part of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Instead, raining embers and a “wall of red” flames chased residents and others from their homes in this wooded enclave in San Mateo County, as the lightning-sparked CZU August Lightning Complex fire ripped toward their properties throughout the night and into Wednesday.

A firefighter directs water onto a tree that exploded in flames outside a house northwest of Santa Cruz, Calif. About 22,000 people in Santa Cruz and San Mateo County have self-evacuated, fleeing their homes to escape dozens of wildfires. (Photo/Shmuel Thaler, The Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP)
A firefighter directs water onto a tree that exploded in flames outside a house northwest of Santa Cruz, Calif. About 22,000 people in Santa Cruz and San Mateo County have self-evacuated, fleeing their homes to escape dozens of wildfires. (Photo/Shmuel Thaler, The Santa Cruz Sentinel via AP)

“We evacuated ourselves. Nobody came,” said Janice McCargo, 56, as she watched the devastation from Highway 1 Wednesday morning. “ There’s no men on the ground. We’ve had no water flyovers. They’ve done nothing.”

Information on the fire’s destruction remained scarce Wednesday afternoon, but neighbors believe the homes of McCargo and others nearby were among the unknown number of structures felled by the flames. The CZU, a collection of wildfires along the coast in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, is one of dozens of lightning-caused blazes that have erupted in the past few days across Northern California, overwhelming fire crews and catching some communities tragically off guard.

By Wednesday morning, the fire had blackened more than 10,000 acres and prompted 22,000 people to evacuate their homes, officials said. Three firefighters were injured and 6,000 structures were under threat.

Ian Larkin, Cal Fire’s unit chief for Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, said the firefight early Wednesday was complicated by a lack of resources, as crews are stretched thin across the state in the aftermath of the lightning storms from the weekend and Monday.

The inability to call in more help “hampered our efforts significantly,” Larkin said, adding that the teams on hand have struggled to deal with “long-range spotting,” or embers being blown by heavy winds ahead of the main conflagration, which then spark new spot fires.

“We haven’t seen a fire truck — it hasn’t even come up on this road there,” said Jeff Northam, 65, who, along with his wife, parked his Toyota RAV4 and Kia vehicles Wednesday morning along Highway 1.

Fewer than a dozen of his neighbors parked near him, all standing by the road in disbelief as they watched thick plumes of smoke spill out from the mountain across from them.

“They could be here defending, but they’re not,” Northam said. “ It just seems like something could’ve been saved a little bit, but everything is burnt.”

The neighbors evacuated their homes between 8:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., residents told The Chronicle. One man who returned home around 10 p.m. said a sheriff’s deputy was there after most residents had already left. McCargo said they received their first evacuation order at 10:45 p.m.

Cal Fire had not listed any structures damaged or destroyed by the CZU fire by Wednesday morning, but Northam, who returned to survey the damage, said he believed his and all of his neighbors’ houses were reduced to ash. The smoke was “so thick,” he said, he couldn’t see past his house and it was “so hot you could boil water.”

Northam later delivered the grim news to his neighbors.

Evacuation centers were set up early Wednesday to help residents in both counties affected by the fires. On the San Mateo County side at Pescadero High School, the facility was primarily functioning as an information hub Wednesday morning, said Rita Mancera, executive director of the local nonprofit Puente de la Costa Sur.

Mancera said that by midmorning 66 families, making up a total of 108 people, had come through the center, which was being staffed by Puente and the Red Cross. Officials secured hotels for 37 families in Half Moon Bay, and other families have traveled to Sacramento and elsewhere to avoid staying in a shelter.

Santa Cruz County’s evacuation center was set up at the county fairgrounds at 2601 E. Lake Ave. in Watsonville.

The ongoing heat wave and parched conditions this week have put higher-elevation areas especially at risk, said Roger Gass, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

“We really didn’t see any relief from the Pacific — we did not see any of that overnight,” Gass said. “It stayed hot and dry and will continue to be hot and dry.”

Gass said forecasters expect to see a cool-down on the coast Thursday and Friday, but it’s unlikely that reprieve will reach higher elevations.

“The real big concern is the dry conditions, along with the ongoing fires that are currently out there,” he said.

Gaby Lee, who lives near Pie Ranch along Highway 1 not far from Año Nuevo State Park, evacuated her small farm Tuesday night. The 27-year-old grows medicinal herbs and dried flowers. She returned at about 11:30 a.m. Wednesday with the help of a California Highway Patrol officer, who escorted her so she could save some of her flowers, which are worth thousands of dollars.

She placed most of her flowers in a shipping container in the hope that they wouldn’t burn, and she put two boxes of her favorite flowers, blue larkspur, in the trunk of her car. She watched from the side of the road as fellow farmers from a nearby farm moved pipes “to irrigate the perimeter and wet everything down.”

Thick, dark plumes of smoke filled the air above the hills directly behind the farm, where a group of people tried to to save their harvest. The section of the farm closest to the street had rows of sunflowers.

“I’m just scared for what’s happening to my home, and watching the mountains burn and thinking about the animals that are out there and all of our structures,” Lee said. “I’m scared for landslides that are gonna come this winter. At the same time there’s nothing I can do, but we are doing as much as we possibly can. But it’s so out of my hands.”


©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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