USA — A wind-whipped fire in the same area as last year’s devastating Summit fire burned 600 acres in rural Santa Cruz County on Sunday, threatened more than 160 homes and other structures, and forced the evacuation of up to 100 households.
The winds reached nearly 40 mph after the fire broke out about 3 a.m.
“It was hard enough to stand up, let alone fight a fire,” said Jim Crawford, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “It was pretty incredible.”
By late Sunday evening, the fire was only 20 percent contained and had destroyed one mobile home and two outbuildings.
The National Weather Service in Monterey predicted the winds that blew the fire around the canyon would die down by late Sunday night, giving firefighters an edge in battling the blaze. But the high winds could return today, and humidity is expected to drop, said forecaster Will Pi. “It will go low and stay low,” he said.
The area burning is the Maymens Flat area, near Highland Way, where the Summit fire, which burned more than 4,200 acres, began in May 2008. Throughout the day, nine air tankers and five helicopters dropped fire retardant and water on the blaze.
More than 930 firefighters battled the fire, which was spreading west in steep canyons south of Summit Road. They had 102 fire engines and 12 bulldozers. Hundreds of other firefighters were expected to arrive by this morning.
The cause of the blaze, dubbed the Loma fire, has not been determined. But Crawford said one area where the investigation will focus is the activity of inmate crews from the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp who had been working as recently as Friday in the area.
The work, which has taken place since the 1980s, involves clearing fuel breaks, maintaining trails and roads, and sometimes burning piles of debris on the Santa Clara County side of Summit Road as part of the upkeep of the Llagas-Uvas watershed, Crawford said. He said he did not know if the crews had been burning debris recently or if they had caused the fire.
The crews are funded by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which provides about $100,000 a year to Cal Fire to contract out watershed maintenance, said district spokeswoman Susan Siravo. She said she didn’t know if the crews had been doing any debris burning recently because the water district doesn’t supervise the work. “We defer to” Cal Fire, she said.
Ken McGeever, Cal Fire’s battalion chief for Santa Clara County, told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that Cal Fire was indeed in the area “doing some pile burning.”
The area burning, generally between Summit Road and Highland Way in rugged chaparral northeast of the Forest of Nisene
Marks State Park, received a drenching of rain less than two weeks ago. Mount Madonna received 8.1 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, and Loma Prieta received 9.2 inches, during massive storms on Oct. 13 and 14.
But, Crawford said, the rain did not soak trees and brush to the core. Rather, it drenched the leaves. Then, during 10 sunny days afterward, the foliage dried and strong winds and low humidity made conditions more fire-prone.
“They may have gotten rained on, but the inside part didn’t get real moist,” he said.
It will take a sustained winter season of rain for large trees and bushes to fully absorb moisture, he added.
Diane Zulliger, who lives on Loma Prieta Way with her husband, two cats and a dog, said they were alerted to the fire by a neighbor at 4 a.m. They had just returned home from a nine-day cruise two hours earlier.
“It’s not something you want to come home to,” she said.
At the Summit Store, a community landmark, things seemed relatively normal.
“We’ve seen a lot of firemen, but there is no smoke or ash on the cars,” said store clerk Karen Osborn. “People are all concerned, though.”
Last year’s Summit fire burned for seven days and consumed 35 homes. A Los Gatos contractor hired to clear brush was charged in April with setting the blaze. Fire investigators said Channing Verden, 50, was burning 20 tons of brush and fallen pines he cleared from five acres of land on the Santa Clara County side of Summit Road. Prosecutors said he left smoldering two piles of brush he was hired to burn and had been warned twice by fire crews that the piles were too high and that he didn’t have a water supply on hand.
On Sunday, sheriff’s deputies issued a mandatory evacuation for people living or working near Ormsby Cutoff and Highland Way.
Road closures included Maymens Flat, Loma Prieta, Mount Madonna, Spanish Ranch, Ormsby North, Highland Way and Summit Road at Soquel-San Jose Road.