Cal Fire says its crews caused wildfire

Cal Fire says its crews caused wildfire

27 May 2010

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USA — 485-acre wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains in October was ignited by an ember from a brush-clearing project that the state firefighting agency had conducted more than a week earlier, officials said Wednesday.

The Loma Fire swept through dry grass and trees Oct. 25 just off Summit Road, injuring four of the 1,700 firefighters who battled it at a cost of roughly $4 million. The blaze damaged or destroyed a mobile home, seven outbuildings and five vehicles.

Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the ember that started the blaze blew out of a “hazard reduction burn project” conducted nine days earlier, after rainstorms had soaked the region.

He said evidence gathered by the state would be turned over to the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office, which could take further action. The fire started in Santa Clara County, but most of the damage was in Santa Cruz County.

In addition, Berlant said, the state will investigate exactly how the burning of piles of brush had sparked the larger fire and whether there was negligence.

Cal Fire will also look into improving the way such burns are done.

“We felt it was important, once we determined the cause, that we let the public know, because there had been a lot of speculation,” Berlant said. “But the circumstances around the fire – the how and the why – are still being looked at. This is phase one.”

Berlant said property owners who suffered losses in the fire can file for damages through the state’s Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board.

Property owners along Summit Road – a remote, winding dirt road east of Highway 17 where some residents live in large custom homes and others live in trailers – had long suspected the fire was caused by the state.

Soon after the blaze broke out, state Battalion Chief Darrell Wolf told The Chronicle he had supervised crews that burned brush piles that were about 10 feet wide and protected by dirt circles carved around them.

The firefighters lighted piles and stayed with them until they burned out, Wolf said. A fire engine then doused the piles, he said.

Other options for thinning brush – chipping it or hauling it to a landfill – were not as efficient, Wolf said.

He said the burns had been tightly controlled and that he had ended them when he noticed that bushes were drying out.

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