Residents question response to blaze

     Residents question response to blaze

26 May 2008

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 CA, USA — Three days after a fast-moving fire whipped through their wildland paradise in the Santa Cruz Mountains, angry and frustrated residents of the tiny town of Corralitos assembled on Sunday with one burning question on their minds.

“When can we go home?” asked an anxious Gayle Bloomquist, who along with her husband, Steve, fled their Eureka Canyon abode just after the sun came up Thursday.

The Bloomquists, like many of the more than 300 people who attended a meeting with fire officials and other authorities at the Corralitos Community Church, was displaced by the Summit fire, which has charred nearly 4,000 acres of forest, destroyed at least 29 homes and 18 outbuildings and devastated tightly knit neighborhoods. About 550 homes are still threatened.

Cal Fire officials said Sunday that the fire was 60 percent contained. But firefighters got a break from the weather as winds slowed down to 20 mph and the temperatures settled in the mid-50s. That left firefighters cautiously optimistic that the worst was over.

State officials said Sunday that the fire has already cost $8.2 million to fight.

Authorities in Corralitos spoke to the standing-room-only crowd with hopes of soothing their concerns that firefighters were too slow to respond to the flurry of early-morning calls from residents.

Fire officials said the blaze was swift and unpredictable in an area that hasn’t burned since fire records started being kept about 100 years ago. In the first eight hours, the moody blaze had scorched 3,000 acres – a pace the crews simply could not keep up with.

Fire officials said some people will be allowed to return home as early as today, while others might wait until Thursday. There are still small areas burning near their homes, so firefighters urged patience because they need free rein of the narrow roads.

“You are going to get in the way of the firefighters,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff Steve Robbins said. “There are still a lot of hot spots. The last thing I want is an accident.”

In response to a question about a supposed slow response time to Ormsby Road, where several homes were burned to the ground, John Ferreira, the Cal Fire unit chief who oversees firefighting efforts in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, put an abrupt halt to the second-guessing.

“We kill enough firefighters over their own desire to do their best and protect the community,” Ferreira said. “I regret that the houses were lost, but we would not have sent our firefighters into that situation.”

Ferreira also said that when the fire broke out, the gusty winds made it impossible to know which direction it was headed.

“You can’t see where the fire is unless you are up above,” he said.

Most in the crowd seemed supportive of the firefighters’ efforts. They frequently applauded when they spoke and were less interested in pointing out blame than just wanting to go home and return to a semblance of their old lives.

“It’s very hard – especially with him,” said Kyla Rodriguez, pointing to her 1-year-old son, Taj. “He’s wondering where the home is and where the kittens are.”

She and her husband, Ryan, were forced out of their Buzzard Lagoon home Thursday and have been staying with family members.

Upper Highlands resident Leslie Douglass was hoping to get some answers at Sunday’s meeting.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot of help for people out of their homes,” said Douglass, who lives on a logging road about a half-mile from Eureka Canyon Road.

She was able to return home briefly on Saturday to pick up some necessities, on a trip organized by Cal Fire. She grabbed her husband Larry’s blood pressure and diabetes medication. She also wanted to feed her chickens and birds, a parakeet and a cockatiel.

For many mountain residents, the ordeal has been a reminder of the fragility of life.

“We’ve been here for 30 years,” Douglass said. “In 1982 it was the floods. In 1989 it was the earthquake. We have been trapped a few times.”

For many reasons, Douglass is also lucky that her house was spared. Like many of the people who live in the rugged, mountainous area, she doesn’t have fire insurance.

“When you have $1,800 a month to live on,” she said, “you have to forgo something.”

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