Trabing fire nearly controlled, firefighters battling about 400 fires across California

Trabing fire nearly controlled, firefighters battling about 400 fires across California

21 June 2008

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Ca, USA — On the long list of losses from Larkin Valley’s Trabing fire, there are expensive homes. Antique furniture. Fancy cars. Barns. Tractors.

But among the more poignant heartaches – the lost animals.

Like Rascal, a short-haired tortoise Manx cat, trapped in a garage where he sought refuge from heat. A llama named Osh Kosh, with dense multi-hued hair. And her white companion – Ice Man. Recovering from recent knee surgery, he lay in thick hay bedding that went up in fatal flames.

Dozens are feared dead, authorities say, while others escaped or were rescued and now await identification after a day when nearly 400 fires broke out across California, from Monterey and Fresno counties to the California-Oregon border.

So many new fires – caused by lightning strikes, incendiary dryness and surreal heat – ignited that Gov. Schwarzenegger ordered the California National Guard to assist in combating the blazes around the state and authorized the use of six helicopters and a remote-sensing device to assist in fighting the fires.

At least five fires were reported Saturday afternoon in Santa Clara County and a little farther south. The Whitehurst fire, east of Mount Madonna County Park near Hecker Pass Road, burned 25 acres. A second blaze, called the Hummingbird fire, burned near Hummingbird Road, and the Clos LaChance winery, near Cordevalle Golf Course close to Gilroy and involved voluntary evacuations from the Valley View area. A third, the Uvas fire,
burned near Uvas and Watsonville roads, requiring the closure of Watsonville Road from Uvas to Santa Teresa Boulevard.

The Tower fire, a very small blaze near the tower for KSBW-TV, was put out quickly. The Newman fire, west of I-5, burned 156 acres of vegetation and has been contained.

Several new fires in Santa Cruz County also broke out after a lightning storm Saturday afternoon, but none burned more than an acre or two and most were contained by evening, Cal Fire reported.

A lightning storm hit about 1 p.m. Saturday in south county, with only a dash of quick showers. While there have no reported human casualties, some animals were less fortunate.

“The animals are the most important,” said area resident Trish Branges, who helped save several animals by creating halters out of twine, but couldn’t reach all that needed saving in Larkin Valley. “They’re what matters.”

This gentle valley on the edge of Highway 1 was beloved for its generous pastures, meandering trails and long white fences. It held dozens of small ranches and hundreds of animals.

A reported spark from a vehicle on Highway 1 – the incident is still under investigation – transformed it into ash.

By Saturday afternoon, the fire was largely contained. Named for Trabing Road, where it is believed to have started, the Trabing fire was easier to control than the recent Martin and Summit fires, Cal Fire officials said, because the area is flatter and more accessible by road.

But its denser population and required road closures caused more animals to be lost in the first two hours of the Trabing fire than the total number lost in the Martin and Summit fires, according to the Santa Cruz Animal Services Authority.

“I’ve been in all three fires, and this one – we lost a lot more animals,” said Amelia Summit of Animal Services.

“Our response was delayed because of the road closures. And unlike the Summit and Martin fires, which were pretty remote, this valley was more densely populated,” she said. “Those fires – we could get ahead of them. This one got ahead of us.”

More than 50 horses, llamas and goats were held at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. Dozens more were held at the Graham Hill Showgrounds in Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay Equestrian Center in Salinas, and several private stables. Dogs, cats and other pets were held at Watsonville’s Animal Shelter.

Even as the Trabing fire cooled, nerves were on edge Saturday throughout the Pajaro Valley. Thunder rumbled through a dark sky. There were smoke in the hills and sirens audible from the roads.

At the Fairgrounds, restless animals snorted and pawed.

Cara Wieser arrived early Saturday morning to pick up 12 horses from the fairgrounds and return them home to Morning Star Stables.

But once back home, she was again turned around. Lightning had ignited a quarter-acre of nearby land.

“There’s smoke in the barn,” she said, shaking her head, as she unloaded the animals back at the fairgrounds.

Some animals were lost because owners didn’t have trailers, and the rescue trailers were unable to get through traffic to reach them in time, said Stacey Daines, director of operations for the Santa Cruz Animal Services Authority.

“Traffic was bumper to bumper and not moving. People would not move out of the way for Animal Control vehicles and horse trailers. Animals died because of it,” she said.

“People watched their neighbors’ horses be engulfed by flames. It was awful, a nightmare.”

Some animals were saved by quick-thinking rescuers.

When 15-year-old Jamie Tsuji and her mother, Irene, arrived at one ranch with their trailer, the home was already burning. A wooden corral – holding two horses, a pony and a goat – had just ignited.

With urging, the animals all hopped into the trailer – except for a testy Palomino mare named Nevada. She pulled back, reared and kicked out. The fire grew, gaining heat. Yet she continued to balk, Irene recalled.

“We had to leave, or we would have gotten caught,” said Irene. “I said, ‘Let’s get out, now!’ “

Rather than leave the mare, Jamie grabbed Nevada’s lead line and started walking. Irene followed in the truck.

“I was really scared,” said Jamie. “There was fire on both sides of the road, and it was just this narrow dirt road. The flames were higher than me and the horse,” she said.

“With all the crackling, he’d jump around, start freaking out. I’d say, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ It was just adrenaline pumping.”

For about a quarter-mile the pair walked, along two switchbacks, until finally reaching the freeway – and safety.

“It seemed like forever,” Irene said.

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