Lockheed Fire a year later: Residents say blaze did some good; officials believe they know culprit

Lockheed Fire a year later: Residents say blaze did some good; officials believe they know culprit

08 August 2010

published by www.mercurynews.com

USA — A year after the Lockheed Fire scorched nearly 8,000 forested acres outside of Davenport, the land is recovering and Cal Fire officials are sorting out how to proceed with the investigation.

The massive wildland blaze sparked from an unattended fire on private property off Lehi Road, a gated dirt road that traces the ridgeline of the coastal hills.

Within hours, flames were roiling through the crowns of old-growth redwoods and stands of Douglas fir and knobcone pine. Although the wildfire — the largest in the county in more than 20 years — didn’t burn down any homes, 13 structures, several vehicles and a lot of fence line were destroyed.

Cal Fire officials say they believe they know who was responsible for the unattended fire blamed for starting the Lockheed Fire, but have not disclosed that person’s identity.

There also has been no decision about taking legal action against the alleged fire-starter, whether that be a criminal charge or a civil penalty, according to Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

“We have to do our due diligence,” he said.

However, there is a two-year statute of limitations on filing a civil action, which seeks reimbursement for firefighting costs, Berlant noted.

While Cal Fire officials review the investigation and tally the exact cost of fighting the wildfire, a necessity if a civil action is levied against the alleged fire-starter, the forest and people affected by the fire are

Last year, Lud and Barbara McCrary watched as much of their 250-acre ranch burned. They nearly lost the Swanton View Road home they’ve lived in for almost six decades.

But this week, the longtime Swanton couple saw the upside of the wildfire.

The wildland blaze had provided an endless supply of firewood at the McCrarys’ place and Barbara was hoping for a bumper crop of wild blackberries this fall or next summer.

“The fire wasn’t so bad,” she said. “It cleared out a lot of brush. … We accumulated more pasture.”

A steep slope previously thick with manzanita at the McCrary ranch was a sea of green dotted with the blossoms of yellow bush poppies, Barbara’s favorite. Knobcone pine starts sprouted from seeds released by fire-sensitive cones and bright green redwood saplings could be seen growing at the foot of dead trees.

“Everything up on these ridges came back almost instantly,” Lud McCrary said, gesturing toward the Big Creek drainage from a horse trail at his ranch.

What the McCrarys are seeing is occurring all across the burned region.

“The ecological response to the fire was quite rapid really,” said Matt Davis, registered professional forester with Big Creek. “Within days we were seeing insects, ants and beetles. … It blows our minds how much has recovered in less than a year.”

The Santa Cruz Mountains area charred by the Lockheed Fire hadn’t burned since the infamous Pine Mountain Fire in 1948, which Lud McCrary helped put out.

“It’s typical after these fires. It’s coming back very strong. You can see redwood sprouts that are 3, 4 feet tall in some areas,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Rich Sampson. “It looks like a putting green with all the knobcone pine coming up.” But the fire also created ample work for those whose property burned. Fences had to be rebuilt and water tanks and pipes were replaced.

Across the mountainous area, firefighters battling the Lockheed Fire resurrected old fire roads, according to Sampson.

“It’ll make it a lot easier to keep these fires from getting so big,” he said.

The McCrarys’ planted thousands of redwood saplings across their land — which will take 60 years to mature — and sowed 18, 50-pound bags of rye grass seed into their hilly pastures during the winter, creating golden fields for their cattle to snack on this summer.

Big Creek Lumber, a North Coast company run by Lud and his brother, Bud, used helicopters to salvage logging redwood trees from the nearly 2,000 acres of company land that burned. Big Creek crews also salvaged timber from Cal Poly Swanton Pacific Ranch land, Cemex property and some smaller landowners, Lud McCrary said.

But concerns about erosion problems caused by heavy rain during winter storms didn’t come to fruition and the threat of fire has diminished substantially because of the foggy, damp summer.

Unlike the two previous years, out-of-control wildfires that threatened and destroyed homes have not sparked this year, something Cal Fire officials attribute to low temperatures, high moisture levels and cool breezes.

“We haven’t had the large fires,” Sampson said. “We definitely have a very different fire season.” Still, Swanton residents said they don’t think they’re out of the woods. They wonder how neighbors are managing their timberland and are aware there is more forest that could burn.

“There’s so much fuel left,” Lud McCrary said. “It kind of worries me, if we had a real dry northeast wind, we could still have a fire.” Staff writer Alia Wilson contributed to this report.

Lockheed Fire:

STARTED: 7:15 p.m. Aug. 12, 2009
CONTAINED: Aug. 23, 2009
LOCATION: Bonny Doon area, Smith Creek drainage
CAUSE: An unattended fire on a Lehi Road property spread into the wildland.
STRUCTURES DESTROYED: No houses, but 13 structures, three vehicles and two travel trailers were destroyed.
FIRE CREWS: More than 2,000 firefighters battled the blaze.
COST: $26.2 million

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