While about 11,000 emergency responders from throughout California and several other states are battling to contain firestorms devastating Northern California, Santa Cruz County is facing a fire of its own.
The Santa Cruz County fire, known as Bear Fire, is burning near Boulder Creek, 19 miles from UC Santa Cruz. While smaller and less severe than the wildfires burning in Northern California, the Bear Fire has burned about 300 acres and is at 15 percent containment as of Oct. 18. At this time, roughly 150 people are evacuated from the Las Cumbres and Deer Creek communities.
The fire began as a structure fire on Bear Canyon Road on Oct. 16 at about 10:40 p.m. and quickly spread to nearby vegetation. Seven firefighters were injured, five on the first day of operations. As of Oct. 18, the fire destroyed four structures and 150 more are threatened, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
“When the fuel is this dry, it burns very intensely, very quickly,” said Cal Fire division chief Angela Bernheisel. “When firefighters got here to do their initial attack on the reported fire, they really had their hands full until we could get additional resources.”
Efforts to combat the blaze were hindered by steep terrain and an abundance of dry brush that acts as fuel. Large portions of the fire were categorized as “dirty burns,” which, as Cal Fire captain Jordan Motta said, leave behind flammable debris such as tree leaves that could fuel a later fire. The Bear Fire is currently heading north, east and west into dense woodlands.
Firefighting operations are currently using helicopters, air tankers and fixed-wing aircraft to work around the inaccessible topography. Wednesday morning, however, emergency aircraft grounded for about an hour due to an unauthorized drone flying in the area.
“It’s a very tight airspace,” Motta said. “If we were to strike that drone, it could cause damage to our equipment, or if that drone were to then crash it could spark another wildfire.”
Evacuation orders were given in the immediate area due to fire conditions and the relatively high number of structures threatened by the blaze. The majority of evacuees, staying with friends or in nearby hotels, didn’t use evacuation centers in Felton and Los Gatos but some, like Boulder Creek resident Jeremy Lincoln, sought refuge there. Lincoln, who lives “off the grid” with no electricity, spent two hours safeguarding his home from the encroaching flames before finally evacuating to Felton. Many of his neighbors did the same.
“We’d been home for 24 hours before we got evacuated,” Lincoln said. “Someone came and told us there was a fire. My caretaker and my son manned the hoses, I was filling up quarts of fuel, rappelling down 50-foot cliffs with my headlamp on [and] filling up my water pump.”
Over 880 personnel, including strike teams from throughout the state, are fighting the Bear Fire. Many additional resources and teams were reassigned to Santa Cruz after working the fire lines in Napa and Sonoma counties, including crews from out of state, as those fires are increasingly under control. For now, residents are waiting to see what the extent of the damage will be.
“So far as I know my house is still standing,” Lincoln said. “You just take it one step at a time and just face it as you go.”
The scores of emergency responders in Northern California battled for over a week to contain and reduce the number of active fires in the state. There are now 12 active fires, down from 22. All red-flag warnings, which indicate environmental conditions are creating a high fire risk, are currently lifted throughout the state. While roughly 34,000 people remain evacuated, evacuation orders in several areas are being reevaluated or rescinded, according to a Cal Fire news release.
As responders begin to assert control over the fires in Napa, Sonoma and other Northern California counties, the early stages of recovery efforts like damage assessment and debris removal are already taking place.
“This is not a situation where we’re going to wait for all of the fire to be out before we begin the recovery process,” said California Office of Emergency Services director Mark Ghilarducci in a press conference. “Currently there is an extensive effort going on, doing damage assessment and getting a good awareness of what we need to do and where we need to get into first.”
Of the 77 cellular sites that were damaged or destroyed in the fires, all but eight are now functional again. The largest fires, the Tubbs, Atlas and Nuns fires, are each at least 80 percent contained.