From our July. 2011 issue
A Day on the Fire Line
We breathed a collective sigh of relief and had
an immeasurable sense of gratitude to Cal Fire, local fire agencies,
volunteers, and police agencies for their massive and rapid response
to contain and extinguish the Summit Fire. Iím especially grateful
to Battalion Chief Darrell Wolf from Cal Fire who has spent many
hours with me over the last few years to work with our community and
support our efforts to develop a Community Wildfire Protection Plan
for the Lexington Hills (LH CWPP) area.
On Friday, May 30, I saw firsthand
the devastation caused by wildfire. Chief Wolf invited me to
accompany him on his rounds of the fire crews still working to put
out hundreds of hot spots scattered over the Summit Fire area. He
wanted a member of our community to take photos and learn about the
Summit Fire so we could incorporate it into the LH CWPP.
We started the day by driving to Morgan Hill for
the Cal Fire-transition meeting. With the fire under control, but
the burn area still dotted with hot spots, it was time to transition
to a mop-up crew. The team leaders and the top brass reported on
what worked and what didnít work. It was like being in a war room.
Reports covered costs, resources allocated, collaboration between
the two counties, plans of attack, injuries, and what could be
improved. Out of the tragedy it was our good fortune that the fire
occurred early in the season so a large number of resources could be
mobilized and that the two divisions of Cal Fire in Santa Clara
County and Santa Cruz/San Mateo counties effectively worked
After the meeting Chief Wolf gave me maps and
reports detailing every aspect of the fire. We hopped into his Cal
Fire Chevy and slowly bounced our way up a steep dirt road, Casa
Loma, to Uvas Road, then took Loma Prieta Road to the remote dirt
section of Summit Road where the fire started. We could not have
made it without four-wheel drive.
As we passed each work crew and the
sub-contractors, Chief Wolf, now in charge of mop-up operations,
quickly assessed the situation and gave directions and guidance as
needed. Many of the roads we drove that day were the same roads he
and I had driven a year before as we surveyed Cal Fireís PL566
fire-break program. This program sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley
Water District. started in 1976 and has kept these remote roads
open, graded, and cleared of brush
We stopped briefly on the left side of Summit
Road where the fire started at 5:17 a.m., Thursday, May 22. The
private parcel had been cleared of trees and brush, presumably for
the planting of a vineyard leaving massive piles of downed trees and
brush. Some of the brush piles had been burned and one theory is
that an ember stoked by the wind became the point of ignition for
the Summit Fire.
This remote dirt section of Summit Road is
narrow, filled with potholes, and surrounded by dense brush. There
are few road signs, posted street addresses, or unlocked gates. For
fire crews not intimately familiar with the area it is hard to know
where the homes are and what is a driveway or a fork in the road.
This created one of the major challenges during the fast-moving
Chief Wolf made frequent stops to instruct his
crew bosses and I took photos from all angles. The steep canyon
facing Maymenís Flat, once dense with chaparral, was reduced to a
blackened moonscape dotted by black twisted stubs of manzanita. On
the other side of the slope were the burned-out homes of Maymenís
Flat. One concrete house had burned from the inside out. It was
fireproof on the outside, but a hailstorm of wind-driven firebrands
and the intense heat of the fire caused the flammables inside to
ignite. Burned trunks of uprooted knobcone pines that blew over as
the firestorm swept through littered the hillside. The initial fire
was fueled by dry winds with gusts of up to fifty miles an hour
blowing from the northeast. This is the same direction the winds
blew during the Austrian Gulch Fire (1961), the Lexington Hills Fire
(1985) and the Croy Fire (2002). Normally the prevailing winds blow
a cool moist breeze from the southwest. As we develop our LH CWPP,
it is these dry NE winds that must be considered.
Next, we traversed the mid-section of the fire,
Ormsby Trail. Here fifteen more homes had burned during the first
three hours of the fire. Earlier in the week I had seen the
destruction on Maymenís Flat while checking on a friendís parcel,
but nothing prepared me for the devastation on Ormsby Trail. In the
middle of large clearings one home after another was burned to the
foundation. A ten-thousand gallon water tank was reduced to a heap
of melted plastic. A pile of clay roof tiles was all that remained
of a home where the owner had used a fire-resistant roof.
The orientation of Ormsby Trail, a ridge
perpendicular to the wind direction and surrounded by
super-flammable chaparral with a knobcone pine over-story, must have
magnified the force of the wind and contributed to extremely high
temperatures. It was too hot to fight from the ground, and the huge
smoke cloud made it difficult to fight from the air.
Creating defensible space, having available
water, and a fire-resistant roof was not enough to save these homes.
The strong winds threw firebrands a thousand feet ahead of the
advancing flames. The firebrands must have battered the houses,
finding every vent, every corner, every woodpile, every opening in
the eaves, or in any crevices where they could lodge and catch fire.
It brought tears to my eyes. The homes didnít stand a chance.
Are there similar wind-tunnel landscapes located
inside the Lexington Hills area? What homes are most threatened and
what type of early-warning system should we have for rapid
evacuation? A similar fire in the middle of the night anywhere in
our mountain community may give residents only minutes to evacuate.
As we traveled down Orbs Trail to Eureka Canyon
the vegetation changed from high chaparral to a mixed canopy of
hardwoods and coastal redwoods. In the canyon, more sheltered from
the winds and with the change in vegetation, the fire dropped to
ground level and burned with a lower intensity. Evidence of spot
fires from embers and burning debris that rolled down the steep
slopes were on both sides of the road. Hand crews and hose lines
were more effective at keeping these low-intensity spot fires from
spreading. Unlike the ridge tops, where the knobcone pines and
chaparral were reduced to cinders, the fires along Eureka Canyon
left the hardwood/redwood canopy mostly intact.
After a quick lunch in Corralitos we headed back
up the ridge through Section Delta. A dozer line had been
constructed to stop the advancing head of the fire. A combination of
redwood forest, aerial assaults, and a change in wind direction to
the cool coastal winds kept the fire from reaching this last
Returning to the ridge top, we drove along
Summit Road. We pulled over where the wind had changed directions on
Saturday, May 27, pushing back over Summit Road into the Uvas Canyon
County Park. As a contingency, Cal Fire had planned for this change
in wind direction and had quickly put dozer lines down the slopes
toward Croy Canyon. They contained the fire as it burned down the
slope into Santa Clara County.
Looping back on Summit Road, we saw many of the
homes that were saved by the efforts of the ground crews and some
very accurate drops by the flight crews.
Some of the areas we did not visit were the spot
fires caused by firebrands that blew over a thousand feet past the
perimeter of the fire and across Eureka Canyon Road. These spot
fires grew large enough that they burned down some homes and
Many more homes were saved than were destroyed
or damaged by the fire. Important factors that helped save homes
were a clearly marked address, an easily accessible driveway, brush
cut back along the road, and a hundred feet or more of defensible
space around the house.
These factors give firefighters time to find the
home, to position themselves, and time to make a safe escape should
the fire become too intense to fight from the ground. During a
rapidly moving fire, spot fires can form far ahead of the fire line
and flame fronts can twist and turn in any direction. Firefighters
must be able to move quickly and homes tucked away on an unmarked
driveway are less likely to be saved.
Fire is an inevitable part of the ecosystem we
live in. This fire demonstrates a need for several
neighborhood-based and integrated fire-protection plans. Future
fires will continue to cross county and neighborhood boundaries. As
we advanced with the Lexington Hills CWPP, I look forward to working
with Santa Cruz Cal Fire to incorporate and integrate the two
countywide CWPP organizations. We already have the benefit of the
Croy CWPP sponsored by the Santa Clara County Fire Safe Council.
Visit our website to learn more about the LH CWPP and support our
local volunteer fire departments.
For more information, visit www.sccfiresafe.org/LHCWPP.htm.
From our July, 2011 issue
Loma Prieta Volunteer Fire And Rescue
The Summit Fire
At this writing the Summit Fire is 100 percent
contained and crews continue to work hot spots. It consumed 4270
acres of brush and timber, mostly in Santa Cruz County. Thirty-five
homes were destroyed, along with approximately 64 outbuildings. The
cost to extinguish the fire was over $18.9 million, and damage
estimates are still being determined. The cause is still under
Events like this shake a community, and they
test the resources of the agencies tasked with mitigating them. Your
paid and volunteer firefighters began their response at 5:20 a.m. on
Thursday, May 22. The engine from Burrell station was first at the
scene. LPVFRís water tender followed shortly after, along with many
other engines and hand crews. With the wind gusting to forty miles
per hour or more, and heavy fuels that hadnít burned in many years,
conditions were right for something big, and it happened, despite
the quick response.
In a certain sense, though, we got lucky. As
awful as the consequences of the Summit Fire are, itís easy to
envision scenarios that could have been much worse. Those fierce
winds might have continued, or changed direction, thus threatening
many more homes and increasing the chance of injury and loss of
life. Lest anyone become complacent, there are many other places in
the Santa Cruz Mountains where similar conditions exist. In fact,
given our dry spring, most of the area is at risk.
Regardless of where events like this take place,
the effects are severe for those impacted. Injury or death, the loss
of home and possessions, the time and effort needed to rebuild, and
the damage to the community are major concerns for us all. We need
to help our neighbors affected by the Summit Fire, and help
ourselves to be ready for the next incident.
What have you done to prepare you and your
family? Do you have an escape plan from your home and from your
neighborhood? Do you have agreed-upon emergency contacts to call if
youíre separated when it happens? Have you trimmed and cleared your
property to make the chances of your home being there when you
return that much greater? Have you worked with your neighbors to
know who needs assistance in these events? Do your kids know what to
do if they are at school or a friendís home when it happens?
Several of these questions have been addressed
in columns published in the
thatís a fine place to start if you havenít already done so.
Additional information is available through your local fire station
or from Santa Cruz County Fire. The Santa Clara Fire Safe Council
website, www.sccfiresafe.org, and the Cal Fire website, fire.ca.gov,
can help as well. Perhaps some people are interested in forming a
Santa Cruz County Fire Safe Council? If so, consider contacting the
Santa Clara Fire Safe Council and asking for advice on how to get
The trend in
Santa Cruz County is larger fires. Whatever the cause of that trend,
we need to be prepared. The Summit Fire was unusually large for our
area and occurred early in fire season, but we can be certain that
other big fires will happen eventually. Our fire season is generally
worst in September and October, so we still have three or four dry
months to get through. Plan ahead, be careful, and keep safe.