In July 1985, ashes fell on Santa Cruz as the Lexington Fire torched almost 14,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
About 4,500 people were evacuated in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, and Scotts Valley and Soquel high schools turned into shelters.
Fortunately for those on this side of the hill, the flames didnt jump Summit Road.
Now, officials with a water company owning about 1,000 acres within the 20-year-old fire line from Lexington Reservoir up and along Summit Road want to log their land. They say it will help prevent a catastrophic blaze in the future.
But theres a problem, some say. San Jose Water Co. didnt hire loggers to cut the smaller trees and underbrush near Los Gatos Creek that generally fuel wildfires.
Instead, the privately held company contracted Big Creek Lumber of Davenport to bring down bigger trees that they say will fund fire prevention in the future.
Otherwise, “we really dont have a way to pay for this,” said Andrew Gere, director of operations and water quality for San Jose Water Co.
Stopping the fire Wildland fires are often fueled by the dry brush and young plants growing on the forest floor. Smaller flames once crawled through the area every few decades, cleaning out saplings and debris and sparing larger trees from a catastrophic blaze.
But 100 years of fire suppression left the land choked with growth, and duff piled up on the ground. Now smaller trees often act like ladders, with branches serving as rungs for the fire to climb into the tree canopy and kill the taller conifers.
Gere said his company wants to stop that scenario.
Prescribed burns are too much of a risk this close to neighborhoods, added Matt Dias, forester for Big Creek. The only alternative is to mechanically remove the overgrowth.
But small trees and brush dont make much money, and company officials dont want to raise rates, Gere said. So first theyre cutting 40 percent of the trees with a diameter of 24 inches or more, or 20 percent of the trees on the 1,000-acre plot.
Many neighbors near Los Gatos question the approach.
“This is not taking out dead trees and brush,” said Kevin Flynn of Los Gatos. “This is taking out the healthiest parts of the forest.”
He and others worry only smaller trees and brush will be left, leaving their homes in further danger.
What complicates the matter further is San Jose Water Co. has not released its final logging plan. The document must be approved by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and will be public information once submitted which should be in the next few weeks, officials said.
Until then, the company refuses to say exactly how much timber will come off the forest, how much money they expect to make off of it, and how much of that will go to fire protection or to shareholders bottom line.
The buzz So residents of the neighborhood where houses sell for $700,000 to more than $1 million are filling in some gaps of information that has not been released. For example, one resident said helicopters would help with logging for six weeks on a rotating schedule. He assumed that meant choppers will buzz overhead every summer.
Not so, Dias said. Helicopter logging is scheduled once every 18 years.
Gere said his company would hold itself accountable for finishing a fire protection plan for the land and implementing the required projects. After all, he said, a catastrophic wildfire would pollute what theyre trying to protect drinking water for about 1 million people in Santa Clara Valley.
“Our goal is to protect our most critical asset, which is our water quality,” Gere said. “We have more to lose by damaging our water supply.”
The company has sought advice from CDF firefighters and Santa Clara Fire Safe Council, he said.
Santa Clara CDF battalion chief David Athney also serves on the Fire Safe Council, and confirmed the water company had approached the groups. However, Athney said they hadnt met enough for him to feel confident discussing the pros and cons of the project.
Meanwhile, Flynn and a growing group of neighbors are threatening a lawsuit should CDF approve the logging plan.
“Take it to court? Absolutely,” Flynn said. “This is our backyards. We want to protect our families and homes. There is a right way of protection and a wrong way. This is the wrong way.”