Athena's Web Weekly Column

Week of August 14th - August 20th, 2009

Santa Cruz fires

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From the beach

Santa Cruz fire from the beach

  As we sit in Southold, NY awaiting word on the Santa Cruz fires, we find ourselves poised on the edge of uncertainty, awaiting word of whether or not we will have a home to return to. In a fire that has jumped from 1,000 to 3,000 acres overnight, our last word was that the winds were indeed headed in our direction. From the map it looks as though the fire is three miles away.

  As it turns out, our friend John was at the house where we live with our cat, Tommy. John was able to drive both our cars out of harm's way, together with some pictures and books, and of course, Tommy. Before John left, he said that the skies were darkening, and that it looked like Armageddon.

  Beyond that, this is as much as we know. We will keep folks posted. Santa Cruz Sentinel, 8/13/9.

  BONNY DOON - Fire officials say there are two markedly different blazes burning in the Lockheed Fire, which surprisingly has held its acreage at 2,800 throughout most of the afternoon.

  This evening crews are trying to keep the fire east of Last Chance Road, south of Lockheed Road and west of Empire Grade, according to Cal Fire spokesman Michael Mohler.

  "It was burning within the interior of where the fire is," Mohler said. "The fire didn't move forward... It's absolutely great news."

  The Lockheed Fire was burning in two directions as the afternoon drew to a close and Cal Fire officials said the two fronts of the fire are unique.

Lockheed fire

The Lockheed Fire

  South toward Bonny Doon, the fire was affected by the weather, especially wind shifts.

  But toward the Swanton area, which is where the fire ignited Wednesday night, the flames were heading northwest and moving in on themselves. There, the fire burned unaffected by the weather, according to Cal Fire spokeswoman Julie Hutchinson.

  Yet the blaze remains largely uncontained, according to Felton-based Battalion Chief Michael Borelli.

  "They haven't lost any structures, but at the same time, we are losing natural resources," Borelli said.

  Firefighters battled to contain the blaze in the Swanton area, Borelli said, giving rough estimates of its boundaries as Bertoli Drive, Last Chance Road and Camp Ben Lomond off Empire Grade.

  "We're trying to keep it at Swanton and out of Bonny Doon," he said. "The wind has shifted away from Bonny Doon a little bit, but it got hotter in the afternoon so the winds came up."

  North winds of 10 to 15 mph are expected Thursday night, which is not good news for firefighters, who would prefer a southwest wind that has come across the bay.

  North winds are similar to an offshore flow and bring warmer, drier conditions, Borelli said.

  "We have to get cracking and we try to work hard at night and take advantage of the conditions; it's cooler and there is more humidity and the fire is not as intense," he said. "You are able to work harder without expending as much energy. With the north wind it was hot in the valleys and water and foot became a big issue today."

  Borelli was reluctant to predict when firefighters might get a handle on the blaze. Ground crews would continue to battle the flames tonight, though the air tankers and helicopters are not allowed to continue due to safety concerns, he said.

  "It's going OK. We're short on resources. We're all competing (throughout the state)," he said. "And a fire hasn't burned there in 61 years so there is a lot of fuels."

Santa Cruz fire map

Santa Cruz Fire Dept on the job

  At 3 p.m. Barbara and Lud McCrary were preparing to evacuate their home of 58 years on Swanton View Road as flames drew dangerously close.

  A little more than an hour later, a team of firefighters and helicopters won the battle of the blaze that sought to destroy the ranch belonging to the co-founders of the Big Creek Lumber Cos.

  Flames crept within a couple hundred feet of the house as hand crews dug in to build a line around the property, containing the blaze. Nearby the buzz of two bulldozers drawing a fire line competed with the sound of a brigade of helicopters working in rotation to douse the flames of a water tank on the hill above the house.

  In what seemed like synchronization, the choppers lined up to draw water from a lagoon along the coast, dropping it around the water tank, one after another until the flames were doused.

  Inside the house Barbara was trying to save Lud's diaries and the Swanton weather records dating back to 1928, and looking for her cat Sneakers.

  "I'm afraid she may be under the house, and if the house goes, I'm afraid she could go with it," the 76-year-old said. Capt. Dan Lipkowitz of Branciforte Fire said "It's the afternoon winds, that's what's driving it."

  Lipkowitz and his engine crew of four arrived last night at 10:30 p.m. on Swanton Road where they've been since,

  Wind. That's what fire commanders worry about as the day winds down.

  Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Mohler said they are concerned about another increase in acreage tonight because of wind picking up. Hand crews are out on fire lines deep into the woods, setting backfires and doing their best to turn the fire back on itself.

  Firefighters say the wind is moving west, away from Bonny Doon but into nasty terrain where the fire is best fought by air. Nightfall also stops the airdrops.

  "It's definitely active," Mohler said, attributing the fire to the lack of moisture and heavy foilage.

  Mohler said he doesn't expect anymore evacuations in the near future, but a new acreage estimate will be available soon.

  From a stand on Molina Creek Farm Road, a Santa Clara County Cal Fire captain, who declined to give his name, said "We're trying to tie this corner up so we save an anchor point. Right now we have miles and miles of open line."

  As the wind howls through the canyons and up the mountainside, flames move in multiple directions, firefighters hot on its trail. Their attack spread out on multiple fronts.

Santa Cruz Fire Department

The letter 'A' marks the fire.
The 'x' in the shadow of the 'A' marks our home.

  It's the nature of the Lockheed Fire, burning in heavily wooded terrain, difficult to access.

  The fire stood at 1,000 acres at midnight Wednesday. It has tripled in size. A massive air attack - of at least 16 with four more on order - and an amazing ground force numbering more than 2,000 work tirelessly to beat back the out-of-control fire burning in the Santa Cruz Mountains in an area that hasn't seen a major wildfire for 61 years.

  Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson said they do not know of any structures destroyed. However, at 1:50 p.m., fire raged dangerously close to a house on Molino Creek Farm Road. Hand crews and strike teams kept the flames at bay.

  Hutchinson, manning the incident command at Davenport Volunteer Fire Department on Highway 1 just north of Davenport, said the bulk of the fire's attention is focused on structure protection in Bonny Doon where temps are near 85 and wind gusts have hit double digits.

  Up to 2,400 people have been evacuated. More than 1,000 structures are threatened. And a steady stream of cars continue to make their way down the mountain as residents are forced to flee their homes, some for the second time in 14 months.

  Smoke billows from the ridges and ashes cover the ground carried by a southerly wind that has carried ash and smoke as far as Monterey County, dulling the shine on the premiere car show, Concours d 'Elegance in Pebble Beach.

  At 11 a.m. Cal Fire officials hit the "trigger point" and announced the mandatory evacuation of Bonny Doon sending sheriff's deputies door to door. Not everyone complied.

  Harold Poehler, who lives at 90 Carter Road in Bonny Doon, said "I'm a trained firefighter, I can run a hose, and I'll help out if they need me."

  Poehler was refusing to obey the evacuation notice.

  "I'm going to wait until it gets over that hill, then I'll run like hell, but I don't think we have anything to worry about."

  Hutchinson had this advice: "Don't wait 'til the last minute to get out of there."

  Cal Fire has set trigger points that prompt the evacuations. They say homes are not necessarily in danger but they need to get fire crews in place to attack the blaze and need residents out of the area. Pinning down the acreage burned has proven difficult, a situation not uncommon for a working out-of-control wildfire.

  Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler said around noon that after flying over the area this morning, they believed the fire to be 1,900 acres. At the Cal Fire Command Center, the estimate ranged up to 2,500 acres at 11:30 a.m., Battalion Chief Michael Borelli said. The Cal Fire Web site, updated at noon, put the acreage at 2,800.

  "It's still making runs, but it's not growing like it was last night," he said. "But the winds will pick up this afternoon."

  At last update, 2 p.m. Thursday, Hutchinson advised that estimate remained at 2,800 acres and "still making significant runs.

  "That's surprising because it's amongst some very large fuel and timber," she said. "It's moving fast and we are not getting a lot of acreage updates; it's getting smoky up there."

  Winds were blowing about 10 to 15 mph, pushing the fire south and southeast toward Bonny Doon, she said.

  Two thousand firefighters, and several air tankers and helicopters, are among the resources fighting the fire that ignited just after 7 p.m. Wednesday. Fire crews are fighting steep terrain, high temperatures, low humidity and wind gusts, Mohler said.

  "It's way too early (for a cause)," Mohler said. "We don't have anything yet."

  More than 1,000 structures are threatened. Mandatory evacuations affect 500 to 1,000 homes in the Bonny Doon area, and 300 people in the Swanton area, but no buildings had been reported destroyed. Evacuations were ordered in the Swanton area, Last Chance Road north of Davenport and all of Bonny Doon. Roads at least partially closed today include Empire Grade, Swanton Road, Bonny Doon Road, Pine Flat Road, Ice Cream Grade and Smith Grade.

  "We're bringing in hundreds of engines," Mohler said to dig fire line and protect structures.

  "Its weather and topography that really affects our fire fight," Mohler said.

  The steep mountainside where the fire is burning is thick with knobcone pine and Santa Cruz manzanita, two plants that evolved with fire and require flames to reproduce, said Eric Huff, assistant officer to the board of California Forestry and Fire Protection. Huff, a former forester with Big Creek Lumber in Swanton, said he knows the area well.

California wildfire

The Lockheed Fire

  "You look around and think, 'we're so close to the coast, the weather's so nice, we've got these redwoods and firs. You don't think about the knobcone and manzanita. It is built to burn," he said.

  The Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District issued an air quality advisory due to smoke this morning. The plume from the fire extends over 50 miles to the southwest over the Monterey Bay to Marina and the Monterey Peninsula. Although the plume is mostly remaining aloft, smoke and ash have been reported in these areas, according to the district.

  The district is advising people to protect themselves by staying indoors or moving away from impacted areas. It also recommends protecting indoor air quality by closing all doors and windows and, if possible, setting ventilation systems to recirculate air. Anyone with respiratory ailments, young children and older adults should limit their exposure to smoky air by staying indoors, or temporarily seeking areas with cleaner air, according to the district.

  The northwest winds pushing the smoke are expected to continue today.

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