By Michele Lanctot
While it was predicted that more than 10,000 acres would burn, only 36 homes, 18 outbuildings, and about 4,270 acres were lost with no casualties in the Santa Cruz Mountain fire. Thanks to the dedication of over 3,000 fire personnel from across the state, residents are starting to return home.
The wildfire started last Thursday in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Highway 17 and Mount Madonna County Park. Over 1,450 homes were evacuated.
“This winter gave way to ideal growing conditions,” said Chris Morgan, a firefighter from Santa Clara.
Grasses and brush grew extraordinarily tall this year and dried out when the rains stopped early and the sun started to blaze, forming high-risk fire conditions.
To make matters worse, 50-mile-per-hour erratic winds started gusting up the mountains, moving the fire through the forested areas and straight toward rural homes. Over 500 local firefighters struggled last Thursday to steer the flames away from structures. Firefighters were on the ground in the face of the fire and helicopter and plane pilots navigated through the dense clouds of smoke.
As the fire continued out of control, more assistance was brought in from other parts of California, totaling 96 different fire crews and a cost of over $12 million. Crews from Santa Barbara to Toulume Lake created a diverse assemblage that worked together to get the job done.
Carl Levan Kustin, fire captain for the city of San Mateo, said that the fire caused so much damage because it was driven by wind and steep terrain.
“Having the fire burning from the bottom of a canyon with the gusts of wind is like turning a match upside down,” Kustin said. “It doesn’t take long before it will burn your fingers.”
As the fog rolled in on Friday morning, the tides began to turn and crews were able to get a handle on the fire. As the weekend dragged on, the weather cooled and winds died down, allowing the fire to be 80 percent contained by Monday. Increased humidity led to the fire being fully contained by Tuesday night.
May is early for fire season. This means the people of California can be expecting more heartbreak over lost belongings and destroyed homes.
Many residents who lost their homes never anticipated it would happen to them. Lindsay Segersin, marketing manager for the Santa Cruz County Red Cross, felt sympathy for those evacuees who did not have insurance to help rebuild their homes.
“Wildfires are emotional disasters because people don’t know if their house is gone,” Segersin said. “Even if it is safe today, it might not be tomorrow. It is a really unstable situation for evacuees. Within this community people have really good ties with their neighbors. Everyone is surprisingly really hopeful about how they are going to put it all back together.”
Residents held signs in appreciation of the firefighters’ efforts along the road as their trucks drove past. Marty Walker, a San Jose fire engineer, said that the personal satisfaction of helping others is indescribable. While it is hard on his family to view constant news footage of the flames without knowing when he is coming home, the community support network allows his family to get through it.
“It gets more difficult each time I have to call and say I am staying another day,” Walker said. “There is a strong bond between the fire department, a strong sense of family [among firefighters]. I am also very fortunate to have a wife who is an incredible woman, able to manage a home, and deal with the kids’ emotions as well as her own.”
Even when the flames are out, the job is not over. While residents prepare to rebuild, they are advised to consider building with noncombustible products, and landscaping with plants like succulents that are less likely to burn.
“The absolute number one thing you can do to protect your home is to create defensible space,” Kustin said. “Clearing brush from around your house and maintaining a green belt will not only save your house, it may save your neighbors’ lives, too.”