Restoring the Santa Cruz Mountains

How nature, community are rebuilding after Loma Fire

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Nine months ago Cal Fire’s helicopter No. 106 was flying to an unrelated call when the pilots spotted smoke coming from the mountains below. A structural fire had sparked from the Loma Chiquita and Loma Prieta roads and spread rapidly, drawing response teams from across the state to the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The Loma Fire started on Sept. 26 in the Santa Cruz Mountains in southwest Santa Clara County. The burn area stretched across the Santa Cruz and Santa Clara county line, covering almost 4,500 acres — over 7 square miles. Hundreds were evacuated as over 2,000 firefighters, 76 fire engines, four helicopters, nine bulldozers and 14 water tenders descended on the area, working around the clock until the last flame was extinguished over two weeks later on October 12. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

Today, black and charred trees remain as reminders of the destructive fire. But at their base, green grass and shrubs are slowly regrowing along the mountainside. Wildflowers have even bloomed through the soot and ash.

Photo by Casey Amaral
Photo by Casey Amaral
Photo by Alonso Hernandez
Photo by Alonso Hernandez

“After nine months the area is beginning to recover […],” said field operations manager of Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority Derek Neumann. “That’s by just letting nature take its course.”

Rather than initiate replanting efforts, collaborating agencies including Cal Fire have opted to let nature rebuild itself because it does it best. The Santa Cruz Mountains have had six forest fires in the southwest Santa Clara County region over the past 20 years. In contrast, most areas of the state expect a fire every 100 to 250 years. This section of Santa Clara County is classified by Cal Fire as a very high fire hazard severity zone.

Local resident Priscilla Huber lives in the mountains close to where the fire originated. Her barn, which contained her personal art studio and countless family heirlooms, burned down. Her house is still standing near the burn site where 16 outbuildings and 12 residential homes were lost.

“My house is completely surrounded with black and the guy next to me has nothing but twisted metal that he’s put a mobile home in the middle of,” Huber said. “On the other side of me is just nothing — a tiny island surrounded by black.”

The former homes remain black ashes and while some of the vegetation is returning, the local water supply is filled with fallen sediment and roads continue to be unusable from erosion.

Photo by Alonso Hernandez
Photo by Alonso Hernandez

“Fires consume part or all of the vegetation,” said Cal Fire Santa Clara Unit Forester-Division Chief Ed Orre. “In areas that have very deep slopes, very erodible soils and unstable geology there’s potential for further damage to occur when the rain comes by, allowing mud slides and landslides to occur.”

During the winter storms, California averaged 28 inches of precipitation. The persistent rainfall unsettled the delicate soil. Burnt vegetation left the land dry and unsupported by roots, and erosion destroyed the few roads leading to nearby towns. The two main roads, Loma Chiquita and Casa Loma, are still damaged and cannot be driven.

“We lost our main way out in the storms because the fire already took out the trees in that area. So when the storms came in, a major slide just took it out,” said Huber, who called from her laptop because cellular lines that had burned in the fire have not been rebuilt. “Where we used to go just ten minutes to our local firehouse, it now takes us an hour and a half.”

Along with the damaged roads, the affected properties have yet to be rebuilt — many of the residents who lost their houses now live in trailers on their land or have relocated elsewhere.

“We all have a lot of cleaning up and just figuring out how to rebuild, but the roads are just such a big issue [so] that’s kind of everyone’s main concern so we don’t just get stuck in here,” Huber said. “We’d be in serious trouble if a fire came our way right now.”

Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority’s privately owned preservation site was also affected by the fire. The Loma Fire burned 43 percent of the land on this preservation.

“Locally we saw a lot of runoff that was sediment laden, that ended up depositing sediment into the two major reservoirs,” said field operations manager Derek Neumann.

The intense winter storms dug up debris that clogged streams in the area and continues to affect the water quality, Neumann said. The Loma Fire also burned 22 percent of the upper Llagas Creeks local watershed, which provides flood control and helps recharge underground aquifers supplying groundwater.

Restoring the water supply is one of the major goals of Open Space Authority’s restoration project, which is estimated to cost about $1 million, Neumann said. The space, which previously had trailheads for biking and hiking, is still closed to the public.

California is moving into another fire season as forest fires are more likely to occur between the months of June and September due to dry climates and increases in temperature. As abundant new vegetation starts to die from the summer heat, fire officials fear another destructive fire season, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

“The species that are coming back are the same ones as before the fire and they’re very fire adept but they are also very fire prone,” Ed Orre said. “So it’s all part of a cycle that repeats itself. It always has and it always will.”