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Wildfires: Why Santa Cruz is at Risk

Retired firefighter Malcolm Terence on the new patterns of recent wildfires and how Santa Cruz is at risk—from the mountains to its urban center

The wind-driven fire in Santa Rosa found fuel not just in trees but in buildings and vehicles, with embers from torched houses flying as far as a half mile in front of the advancing fire. PHOTO: STETT HOLBROOK

Even 25 years ago, Santa Cruz fire officials were worried about the Prospect Heights neighborhood that adjoins the overgrown eucalyptus stands in DeLaveaga Park. In a newspaper article at the time, then-Fire Chief Ron Prince expressed concern that brush, downed trees and fallen limbs were four feet deep in some areas.

In the parlance of veteran firefighters, these accumulations of downed vegetation are called “fuel,” and they help a small ground fire crown into the treetops when the worst conditions align. A walk throug­­h the forest there today reveals it is still just as fuel-rich.

One of those veteran firefighters is Cap Pennell, who worked for 34 seasons with Cal Fire, mostly around Santa Cruz, and who retired from the state firefighting agency 15 years ago. He recalls the gallows humor in the fire stations about the fire that might start in Boulder Creek and get pushed by strong offshore winds down the San Lorenzo canyon, all the way to the Boardwalk.

The counter-argument to that particularly bleak outlook on the state of fire safety, Pennell recalls, was that there was a crossroad every quarter-mile which would stop such a blaze. The idea that this imaginary hedge would stop the spread of a major wildfire was proven wrong once again, he says, when the most recent fires in Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa crossed roads and even a six-lane freeway. A six-lane freeway, by the way, is all that separates Pennell’s home from the endangered Prospect Heights—a gap he knows could be easily closed by a fire pushed by strong winds.

“Convection and radiation usually makes fire go uphill,” says Pennell, “but the other factor would be adiabatic, where the winds come downhill. They are warm and dry, and they cause more extreme fire behavior.”

Prospect Heights isn’t the only neighborhood considered to be at great risk. The bottom line is that Santa Cruz firemen have long worried about the windy-day fire that would start in the forested hills and sweep down toward the urban flats—exactly what happened in Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara—and they say it’s more critical than ever that residents prepare for that possibility.

 

WIND FACTOR

The Bear Fire started in the steep San Lorenzo uplands on Oct. 18, 10 days after the start of the Santa Rosa fires. By then, the north winds had died down, so crews were able to contain it in 10 days. Rich Sampson, a Cal Fire division chief based in Felton, says that if the Bear Fire had started at the same time as Santa Rosa’s wildfires, the winds would have blown flames down to Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond, a particularly dangerous situation because so much of Cal Fire’s crew had already been sent up to Santa Rosa.

Sampson says similar risks exist for canyons with a north-south alignment above Aptos, Corralitos and Watsonville, where a fire could begin in the drier elevations above the inversion layer and pick up speed when it gets fanned by an offshore wind. Normally, at higher altitude, the temperature decreases due to the changes in air pressure. But in an inversion, instead of getting cooler, it is actually warmer at higher elevation. The flames would rush downhill, an example of the adiabatic fire behavior Pennell described.

The flushes of heavy rain in March and April have barely moved this season’s precipitation needle to 65 percent of normal, and the more generous rain last winter may have made things even more flammable, Sampson says. This was because the heavy rain last year was not enough to wet the bigger fuels after many years of drought and, besides, it stimulated the growth of lots of fine fuels—weeds and grass—which also dry out quickly.

wildfires santa cruz air drop Santa Rosa fire

EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES An air drop during the Santa Rosa fire. Normal firefighting methods can become impossible in wind-driven fires. PHOTO: JON LOHNE

As evidence, he cites 20-30 acres of intentional prescribed burning that Cal Fire had just completed to reduce hazardous fuel buildups near UCSC. The timing for the burn—in the middle of the winter—would never have been possible before the drought.

Jake Hess, a Cal Fire deputy chief based in Felton, says firefighters routinely sample fuels for moisture in their work, and are finding that, although heavy rainfall in 2017 had refilled reservoirs, a lot of the live fuels were clearly weakened, but not killed, and had not bounced back to their typical moisture level after one good year.

Hess says he’s seen every fire season outpace the previous year’s fires, and Cal Fire has moved more funding to each unit for increased protective fuels reduction. In the Santa Cruz area, this will mean two full engine crews doing this pre-fire work, six days a week.

Hess agrees that winds can be a dominant factor in fire behavior and said the 2008 Summit Fire between Santa Cruz and Los Gatos had winds so strong—80 miles per hour—that firefighting aircraft had to be grounded. Hess was headed to the Santa Rosa Fire when he got orders to turn around and head home to the Bear Fire.

He says strong wind is such a big factor in fire behavior that his agency increases crew strength whenever it is forecast. As fuel moistures have continued to drop from lack of rain and lack of snowpack every year, the fire season for Cal Fire Southern Region is all year now. Big fires late in the year in 2005 seemed an anomaly at first, but Hess says that lately they’ve added “a new mental component that our employees are having to deal with: burnout. I don’t see it changing; all the science says this is the new normal, and will increase.”

 

A NEW KIND OF FIRE

Tim Chavez, a Cal Fire field battalion chief from the Riverside area, was on the Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara for 16 days, and he remembers the offshore winds. “They came for 13 days straight. Usually they get them for three days, then the fog comes in and the fire stops spreading,” he says.

It would be hard to overstate the catastrophe of the wind-driven fires in the Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa areas. The Tubbs Fire in Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties had burned 36,807 acres by its containment on Oct. 31, 2017, and caused 22 deaths by fire. It burned 5,643 structures including 2,800 homes in the city of Santa Rosa, 5 percent of the city’s housing stock, with an estimated $1.2 billion of damage. It was the most destructive wildfire in California history.

The Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties started Dec. 4, 2017, and burned 281,893 acres, becoming the largest wildfire in modern California history. It destroyed 1,063 structures and was linked to the deaths of one firefighter and one civilian before it was contained on Jan. 12 of this year. Another 20 people subsequently died when rainstorms triggered mud and debris flows in the burn area.

One Northern California insurance broker says insurance companies are looking closely at brush and slope in issuing new fire policies and reassessing existing ones. He says the companies were “getting off a lot of their risks, even policies that they’ve held for 20 or 30 years. Fire with a wind, you aren’t going to stop it. We’re seeing policies that cost $1,000 a year coming back for $1,800, two grand.”

Many instructional materials for fire protection are designed for homes built in forested areas—what firefighters call the Wildland/Urban Interface, or WUI. These materials suggest clearing or seriously reducing vegetation and other fuels accumulations around a residence within a 100-foot perimeter. In most of the less-wildland neighborhoods of Santa Cruz County, this would amount to removing the next two houses on every side of your house.

Chief Hess observes that the wind-driven fire in Santa Rosa found fuel not just in trees but in buildings and vehicles, with embers from torched houses flying as far as a half mile in front of the advancing fire.

In conditions like those, ordinary firefighting becomes impossible, and the main strategy becomes evacuation. Jim Frawley, the chief of the Santa Cruz Fire Department, told a recent community meeting at DeLaveaga School that residents need to make themselves, their homes and their community better prepared for the catastrophic possibilities.

As part of his department’s fire-readiness campaign, representatives are going out into neighborhoods to form a Firewise Community, starting with the people who live near DeLaveaga Park. Materials aiding people and neighborhoods to prepare are available at https://goo.gl/oQ5k55.

Frawley says that at any given moment, his department has 17 firefighters on duty—enough for one house on fire. So, in the case of a wind-driven fire, it’s the preparation that comes beforehand—investment in non-combustible roofs, clearing rain gutters of debris so they are less flammable, and other actions aimed at fireproofing. Much of that information is available at the Ready, Set, Go program. See https://goo.gl/Tphe6w.

The “Go” step is evacuation. More than 100,000 residents were evacuated during the Thomas Fire. Frawley says that in a worst-case fire starting in the Eucalyptus groves, Branciforte Avenue and Morrissey Boulevard would be converted to one-way evacuation routes headed toward the ocean.

The fire districts in the county have cooperative agreements with Cal Fire to respond jointly to fires too big for any one department. Frawley says that the city government has also budgeted $100,000 per year to help reduce fuel buildups in overgrown areas like Delaveaga Park. His department is working with the city parks department to prioritize the work and to enlist other groups for resources that can help prepare for the next fire.

The county Fire-Safe Council has funds to bring in a chipper to chew up unwanted brush after it’s removed, and Cal Fire can supply convict crews to help handle the accumulations of fallen trees, branches and brush.

Frawley was a firefighter in Southern California before he came to Santa Cruz three years ago, and he says that dryness and wind conditions are not as bad in Santa Cruz as in Santa Rosa or Santa Barbara, but adds, “To say ‘never’ is wrong. So we need to be aware of it, to plan for it and to bring in the community.”

As a step in that direction he moderated the well-attended meeting in November at Delaveaga School. The neighborhood had already had an early warning when a fire broke out near DeLaveaga Golf Course in early July.

Ed Silveira from Friends of DeLaveaga Park, welcomed the fuels treatment in the park to reduce fire danger, but also questioned the amount of money being appropriated for the job. “It’s interesting that the City Council came up with close to $300,000 to remodel the city golf course restaurant, but the fire chief only gets $100,000 for public safety in this area.”

Bill Maxfield, another homeowner near the park, said, “Besides the terrible fires in Sonoma, Napa, Ventura and Santa Barbara, we’ve had a couple of scares in DeLaveaga Park, including one in 2017 that required helicopter drops [of water and fire retardant] and a small fire within the last couple of weeks that happening during a rainstorm—both are thought to be human-caused. I’m really thankful that city leaders are paying attention to this issue. The question is, what can the city do to help, and how can neighbors participate in a solution that cuts the fuel load and helps us prepare our homes and families in the case of a major fire in the park? I’m optimistic that it can be done. Clearly the interest is there.”

Cal Fire and local firefighting groups called another public meeting since then to study lessons learned from the Bear Fire above Boulder Creek, which burned nearly 400 acres before containment. It was a mountainous, heavily forested area with less housing but more vegetation. Joe Christie from the Santa Cruz Fire Safe Council says 80 people attended.

Christie says that prevention efforts in the area are complicated by the network of access roads, overgrown by vegetation, and by rural residents who value privacy and are concerned with the prospect of increased code enforcement.

The lack of egress is a problem, not just on a neighborhood level. It is a similar challenge on a larger scale for fire managers in Santa Cruz and across the West. There’s no easy way out of this expanding fire risk; fuel buildup, drought and climate change have all been piling up for decades. It’s especially a problem when strong winds shift the main fire response strategy to flight, rather than fight.

Stuart Carlson worked 35 seasons for Cal Fire before recently retiring as a station captain in Corralitos. He says the reality of fire danger in Santa Cruz County is part of California’s natural landscape, and will require continually evolving vigilance.

“The Lockheed and Summit fires were wind-driven fires initially, also the Oakland Hills Fire in 1991,” says Carlson. “These areas have histories of burns, these are areas where plants are adapted to fire—knobcone pines, called fire pines, manzanita—fire is a part of their ecology. And part of it is that we live in these areas.”

Malcolm Terence has been a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and a reporter for the ‘Los Angeles Times’ and other papers in California. His new book, ‘Beginner’s Luck, Dispatches from the Klamath Mountains,’ is being published by Oregon State University Press next month.

 

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Amir Bey

    April 17, 2018 at 7:44 am

    Thank you; very informative!

  2. Tuula Rebhahn

    April 15, 2018 at 1:13 pm

    Thank you for publishing this article. Fire prevention is something that we all have to do together.
    Grant St. neighborhood is coordinating with the SC Public Works department to clear brush in the Branciforte creek corridor. Email [email protected] to be updated about work parties.

  3. Greg J. Bennett

    April 11, 2018 at 11:19 am

    Just look at what happend recently in Ojai, Ventura & Montecito….

  4. Stacey Frederick

    April 11, 2018 at 11:18 am

    For those interested in learning more about the fires in the coastal ranges of California (including the Santa Cruz area) a group of non-profits will be holding a 2 day workshop May 7-9, 2018 called “LIVING WITH FIRE IN CALIFORNIA’S COAST RANGES: Promoting Fire-Resilient Communities and Landscapes in an Era of Global Change.” Registration is open until April 26th and you can apply for a registration fee waiver if cost is a barrier. More information at http://www.cafiresci.org/events-webinars-source/category/livingwithfirecoastranges

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