CAL FIRE chief: 'We weren't prepared' for January fires

At least 20 wildland fires ignited across Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties this week amidst strong winds


Hannah Hagemann
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Winds that likely ignited at least 20 fires across Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties have died down, and firefighters seized the opportunity Wednesday, making progress on containing the blazes into the evening.

The two major fires are the Freedom Fire, north of Watsonville in the Aptos Hills, and the Panther Ridge Fire in Boulder Creek. Those two blazes triggered evacuation orders for at least 120 households. All residents placed under those orders were allowed to repopulate as of Wednesday afternoon.

Watsonville, Calif., resident Kelly Klett looks in the direction of a burned area near her ranch on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Klett says 25 horses were evacuated from the ranch due to fires burning within 100 yards of her home. More than a dozen fires, likely ignited by strong winds, burned across Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties this week.
Watsonville, Calif., resident Kelly Klett looks in the direction of a burned area near her ranch on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Klett says 25 horses were evacuated from the ranch due to fires burning within 100 yards of her home. More than a dozen fires, likely ignited by strong winds, burned across Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties this week. (AP Photo/Randy Vasquez, Bay Area News Group via AP)

Cal Fire CZU San Mateo —Santa Cruz Unit Chief Ian Larkin said though many of the fires across Santa Cruz and San Manteo counties are nearing containment, that crews were still on the attack.

"We're in an offensive attack... we have crews out on the ground aggressively after all these fires," Larkin said. "We're making good progress on most of them."

According to the unit chief, full containment of the Freedom Fire and the Panther Ridge Fire is not expected until Friday. Firefighting crews were still laying down control lines on the Aptos Hills area fire at the time of publication. Still, the agency does not expect to see an increase in acres burned on those fires.

Firefighting crews were also fighting to contain the Bloom Fire near Big Basin State Park and Boulder Creek, as well as the Butano Fire near Pescadaro Creek State Park in San Mateo County.

"It's a lot of hard work...they're [crews] having to lay hose into a lot of this just like they did on all the fires this summer," Larkin said.

A bulk of Cal Fire wildland firefighters are seasonal workers. That's a result of stressed financial resources, the unit chief said, which doesn't allow for full staffing levels during the winter season.

"We're out of fire season right now, we're in 'winter preparedness'. That means we have limited resources," Larkin said. "We're down to three fire engines that are staffed full time, so we relied on our local government partners, the fire districts and the city departments, to help suppress these fires in the initial phases, until we got resources that came in from out of the area."

At least 20 wildland fires, he said have been responded to in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties since Monday.

Ahead of Monday's weather event, the agency was closely monitoring the wind and other indicators, had engines fully staffed and preemptively called in a Cal Fire strike team from San Luis Obispo, Larkin said.

But the level of response required to fight the dozens of fires, was unanticipated.

"I can honestly say that no we weren't prepared for this to happen in January, when normally it's raining," Larkin said.

According to the unit chief, six fires were actively burning as of Wednesday afternoon. On the other roughly dozen fires, crews are engaged in the mop-up phase of the firefight — that means they're putting out spot fires, assessing hazardous trees, and scouting for new sources of smoke.

At the time of publication, no homes had burned in the fires, according to Cal Fire. It is currently unknown if any structures were burned in the blaze — that includes buildings that aren't homes or residences.

When asked about what likely sparked the fires, Larkin pointed to wind, and downed power lines.

"We did respond to several calls for service that were initially sent out as power lines downs or a tree into a power line, due to the wind, that did have fire in and around that area," Larkin said. "So there is a presumption that some of those are most likely caused by electrical."

Still, the official cause of the fires have not be determined as of yet, as the agency is in the midst of its investigation.

After just having declared the CZU Lightning Complex controlled in late December, the long-time Santa Cruz county local said he and crews are feeling it.

"Everybody's tired...it's a grind. The troops are out there doing the absolute best they can and they continue to do the work, day in and day out," Larkin said.

The unit chief said Santa Cruz County residents, and his own agency, will need to get used to a longer fire season.

"There's definitely a change occurring in the climate," Larkin said. "That is having some type of effect here where we're not getting the type of rain we used to get, and we're getting hotter and drier winters. It's 74 degrees outside right now, that's pretty unheard of."

Ryan Walbrun, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, echoed Larkin.

"It's unusual to get January fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains," Walburn said. "Looking back, we essentially had three to four days of record temperatures, and then we got that wind event."

In Watsonville, NWS data shows that currently the area is only at 34% of average precipitation levels. Walburn also pointed to spiking temperatures preceding the fires.

On Monday, San Jose hit 78 degrees, shattering a 101-year-old record that was previously 74 degrees in 1920.

Residents and officials alike, who just recently went through the trauma of the historic CZU Lightning Fire, are feeling the strain. For Mary Holland, a Boulder Creek resident, the fires induced anxiety, after a long smokey summer.

"It was kind of a mild PTSD response," Holland said, who didn't have to evacuate, but lives near where the Bloom Fire broke out.

"I said 'oh God no, not again'...I was upset," Holland said. "I really have had more than my fair share of crises this year."

Still, the Santa Cruz Mountains local said she will continue to make her home in the redwoods.

"I'm going to hold out here as long as I can. I really don't want to live anywhere else," Holland said.

___

(c)2021 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2021 FireRescue1. All rights reserved.