USA — A year ago this morning, high winds kicked up embers from a smoldering brush pile and flicked them into dry brush.
Within hours, the Summit Fire raged down the hills and destroyed homes as fire crews tried desperately to get a handle on the blaze. The 4,270-acre wildfire, which erupted between Summit Road and Maymens Flat, was the first major wildland fire in the region in years and the beginning of the worst fire season in recent memory.
Now, one year later, “normal” with quite a few changes is slowly returning to the mountains above Corralitos.
“People are in good spirits,” said Dave Peterson, owner of Corralitos Market. “That was a really devastating time. … Now, people are coming out of it and starting their lives over.”
Patches of green are reclaiming the moonscaped hillsides and fresh shoots are sprouting on the trunks of charred madrone trees. At one destroyed home, a wisteria hedge that survived the fire flourishes on the fence.
The residents of some of the 63 homes consumed by flames are rebuilding, but this time their houses have sprinkler systems built into the ceilings and, out front, fire hydrants and two squat, dark-green tanks that together hold 1,000 gallons of water. All are county requirements for an area considered urban-wildland interface.
But for every family rebuilding, it seems one has left the mountain. On Ormsby Cutoff Trail, one of the areas most decimated by the fire, four of nine families are coming back, said Ron Wohnoutka, one resident who is rebuilding.
“That’s the sad part with the fire we lost a lot of neighbors,” he said. “This was a great neighborhood.”
Saturday, the families driven out of Wohnoutka’s neighborhood by flames will come together for the first time for a barbecue. It may be their final neighborhood gathering. It also seems to be the only event commemorating the fire, though much of the Corralitos community will gather Sunday at the 50th annual Corralitos Padres breakfast.
“All the community is really rallying together,” said Peterson, who is a padre. “Some of the people are just now getting back.”
One of the first homes rebuilt in the fire zone belongs to Wohnoutka’s mother, Gertrude, 88. Her three-bedroom, two-bath house with hardwood and tile floors follows the same floor print as her house that went up in flames, but this time around the wooden exterior has been traded for stucco, another county building requirement.
“It’s been quite a struggle to get everything going,” Wohnoutka said. “We worked on mom’s house first because she wanted to get back up there as soon as possible.”
If all goes as planned, she’ll move back early next month. Across the street, Wohnoutka has a crew framing his new house this weekend. He and his wife have been living in a Rio del Mar rental for the past year, but he said he never questioned returning to the mountain, where bees, crickets and birds already have moved back in.
“It’s so pretty up here. It’s so peaceful,” Wohnoutka said as he looked out toward Monterey Bay from the concrete foundation of his new 3,100-square-foot home. “I just love it here.”
But with all the optimism comes a twinge of concern. Cal Fire Capt. Tony Akin, who is stationed at the Corralitos firehouse, said the fire conditions this spring mirror what they were a year ago.
“We’re in the exact same level as before, if not worse,” he said.
Akin explained that the combination of dry vegetation and warm days is dangerous and it doesn’t take much to drive a fire out of control. The Summit Fire sparked before fire season was declared last year, igniting in 56-degree weather with a layer of morning fog on the hills, but it was windy that day.
Los Gatos contractor Channing Verden, 50, was arrested in April and accused of starting the Summit Fire. He has pleaded not guilty to one count of causing a fire that caused an inhabited structure or property to burn. He faces seven years in prison if convicted.
Verden allegedly had been clearing vegetation from a property on the summit and allowed two burn piles to smolder, which sparked the wildfire. A few illegal controlled burns that got loose already this spring, Akin said, but the lack of wind has prevented the fires from spreading.
Beginning this weekend, Cal Fire will up the number of fire engines it staffs in the Santa Cruz-San Mateo district from four to seven although fire season officially has not begun.
Monday, 16 firefighters will begin inspecting properties to ensure people are clearing the required “defensible space” around structures. Akin said that, already, he has seen more residents taking care to reduce fire danger near their homes by maintaining that 100-foot clearance.
“Those three fires for the people in the mountains here that was a wake-up call,” he said.