Loma Fire Rages in the Midst of a Drought

The Loma Fire has grown to 4,313 acres and is 34 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.

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Update 9/30 6:55 p.m.: The Loma Fire has grown to 4,345 acres and is 50 percent contained, according to Cal Fire. One firefighter has been hospitalized, and eight residences have been destroyed and 325 structures are threatened. 

UC Santa Cruz alumna Kimberly Barker had just gotten off work Monday evening when she got a call from her mother, begging her to evacuate her home. Though her evacuation wasn’t mandatory, she stuffed two duffel bags with her clothes, medication, a blanket from a friend and her bridesmaid dress and drove to Gilroy to stay with her boyfriend.

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Photo by Casey Amaral.

The Loma Fire has now covered 2,865 acres, threatened over 325 homes and buildings and forced hundreds to evacuate. Located on the border of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz county lines — in the Summit Road area between Highway 17 and Mount Madonna County Park —  the fire is the fourth in a series of major wildfires burning more than 8,000 acres since 2002.

As of Sept. 28, the fire is at 22 percent contained and is headed southeast towards Morgan Hill. The cause of the fire is currently under investigation. Barker, along with hundreds of mandatory and voluntary evacuees, have fled to friends’ and family’s residences, as opposed to Red Cross evacuation centers.

“Mountain folk are resilient, they don’t like to ask for help,” said disaster relief supervisor George Smith who worked at the Addison-Penzak Jewish Community Center in Los Gatos, one of the three evacuation centers, on Tuesday evening. “We have had one person come stay here, a few dine and leave, but in these types of situations people often stay with friends [rather] than come here.”

As Barker left her home off Summit Road and drove over the Santa Cruz Mountains, plumes of smoke rose out of the hills, which she described as a “volcano eruption” that covered her car with a thick layer of ash.

“I was dragging my feet in the beginning a little since we were not actually getting [mandatorily] evacuated,” Barker said. “But I kept getting bombarded by messages and calls from people telling me to leave.”

With 1,762 fire personnel on scene, firefighting efforts will continue as temperatures drop to the mid-60s and a chance of rain is expected across the Bay Area on Sunday. However, this change in pressure means the area may be left susceptible to winds.

“Even though the temperatures come down and the humidity goes up, the wind can spread the fire just because the field is so dry right now,” said Cal Fire public information officer Bill Murphy. “So in a way the wind is a double-edged sword.”

A Cal Fire helicopter collects water from the Almaden Reservoir to drop on the fire. Photo by Casey Amaral.
A Cal Fire helicopter collects water from the Almaden Reservoir to drop on the fire. Photo by Casey Amaral.

As the fire teeters between the Santa Clara and Santa Cruz County lines, Cal Fire hopes to contain the blaze by Monday. Kimberly Barker has since returned home, and evacuation notices have been lifted.

The Soberanes Fire across the bay began in July is still burning. It’s the seventeenth largest fire in California’s history at 129,395 acres — over 200 square miles.

“There’s the Soberanes Fire and there’s this fire and there’s another fire, so we are limited on resources,” said Santa Cruz Fire Department (SCFD) Capt. Ron Esche, who was stationed at the firehouse at UC Santa Cruz. “But other states and other agencies get together and help put out these incidents.”

According to Cal Fire, as of Sept. 17, 5,794 fires have burned 555,866 acres across California and will likely increase each year. The last large-scale fire in the area was the 2009 Lockheed Fire, which blazed through 7,817 acres north-west of UCSC, and caused $26.6 million in damages. In the last 16 years, California has seen six of the worst fire seasons since 1960.

“We’ve seen this increasing intensity in fire behavior, and it becomes more concerning each year,” Murphy said. “Typically we’ve seen our worst fires during [high wind] that causes the fires to spread really fast, but for the last few seasons we’ve seen fire behavior in the absence of wind.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), 66 million trees have died between 2010 and 2015. These prolonged and intense fire seasons have become more expensive since firefighting takes up more than 50 percent of USFS’s annual budget — a 16 percent jump from a decade ago. The USFS has a rolling 10-year budget and if the same trend continues through 2025, firefighting alone could account for three-quarters of USFS’s nearly $6 billion budget. If the majority of the budget is funneled into firefighting, there are less resources for land management and maintenance.

Photo by Stephen de Ropp.
Photo by Stephen de Ropp.

“Because of the drought we’re operating with a heightened sense of awareness,” Murphy said. “We want to get as many resources as we can as quickly as possible to try and keep it really small.”

The USFS report also notes these catastrophic blazes are predicted to burn twice as many acres by 2050. Though last year was the hottest year on record, NASA studies show that 2016 is well on its way to surpassing it. According to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, each of the first six months of 2016 set a record as the warmest respective month globally in the modern temperature record, which dates back to 1880.

As the drought continues and temperatures warm, trees drop their leaves. The leaves littering the forest floor serve as “dead fuel” and are quick to ignite, Capt. Ron Esche said.

Another factor in an increasingly hazardous fire season is tree death caused by bark beetles, which are smaller than a grain of rice, but can kill one hundred-year-old pine trees from the inside out. Without water, the trees can’t produce sap that repels the bugs and larvae. As the beetle population grows, larvae break the tree down from the inside out.

“You can look at these trees out here and they are brown all over. Very unusual — I’ve been up here 14 to 15 years and I have never seen it this dry,” Esche said. “All the leaves that were always lush and green from the fog and it’s not [like that anymore]. You go throughout campus, [the leaves are] brown and the fire danger — even on [the UCSC] campus — has increased because of the drying out.”

Esche said the prevalence of the bark beetle has grown significantly over the past 10 years on and around campus. Bark beetles haven’t been a threat in the past, since tree sap prevents infestations.

Photo by Casey Amaral.
Photo by Casey Amaral.

“When you’re down at the bottom of the hill, look back at the trees, and it’s almost like someone’s hair has been highlighted, but it’s these brown highlights,” said SCFD firefighter  Clayton Ogden, stationed with Esche. “When you’re just walking around campus, look up at the trees, when you have a big highlighted section, the sun’s shining on it. It’s really defined but no one notices because it’s so subtle.”

Although, the Loma Fire doesn’t have a high presence of bark beetles, factors like climate change and the drought have made fire seasons more dangerous. Each year, California braces itself for fires that consume acres of dry trees and brush throughout the state. The Loma Fire is one of 12 large simultaneously burning fires throughout the state as of Wednesday night, and it won’t be the last this season.

“Throughout the state, there [are] acres and acres of trees that have turned completely brown and those trees are dead,” Ogden said, gesturing to the trees surrounding the back of the fire station. “These are in the process of dying because of either the drought or the beetle larvae. I’m not sure which, but time will tell.”

*Additional reporting by Nick Nodine and Connor Jang.