From our July. 2011 issue

A Day on the Fire Line
Rick Parfitt

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 together.

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 fire.

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 bulldozer line.

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 structures.

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

Jeff Powell

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 investigation.

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 MNN, and 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 started.

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.

 

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