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Debate Brews Over Residents Who Won’t Evacuate During Fire

Some residents stay to defend their homes amid the CZU Lightning Complex fire

A firefighter extinguishes flames on Foxglove Lane in Boulder Creek on Aug. 19 as embers fill the air. PHOTO: MIKE GAGARIN

A fire that has burned more than 78,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains has some locals scrambling to try and protect their homes and those of their neighbors.

Their decision has created tension amid the CZU Lightning Complex fire. Cal Fire officials have repeatedly said that residents who’ve stayed behind should leave before they get in the way or get hurt, at the same time that they’ve garnered praise from their neighbors and others on social media.

“It’s really upset me that Cal Fire’s saying they’re all renegades. And somebody had better start recognizing they’re heroes, selfless volunteers—they’re the militia that are willing to go out and save their neighbor and protect our county,” says Howard Liebenberg, 68, who initially evacuated but recently returned to his Brookdale home. 

Liebenberg, who has more than five decades of experience fighting and preventing fires, won’t say how he got past the fire barricades designed to keep civilians out. Nor will he say whether he’s joined any of the efforts to put out fires over the past week. “We can’t talk about it,” he says.

Being in an evacuation zone is technically a misdemeanor in the state of California, and deputies have been issuing citations, Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Chris Clark warned Monday evening.

On the other side of the ridgeline of Ben Lomond Mountain, Mike Zucker stayed behind in Bonny Doon, where residents say they’ve been using bulldozers to build fire breaks and pumping water onto trucks, which they’ve used to fight fires and save homes. But he’s quick to add that not everyone has neighbors like his who are up to the challenge and have the proper training. “If you’re not of this caliber, don’t try this at home,” Zucker says.

Sheriff Jim Hart and various Cal Fire officials have criticized those who stayed in their homes.

They argue that such residents have the potential to get in the way of back-burns, aerial drops of fire retardant or other firefighting operations. They may not be able to stay in close contact with Cal Fire personnel to keep themselves safe, they say. At least five residents who stayed behind have needed to be rescued, diverting resources from other efforts.

Cal Fire has confirmed that one Santa Cruz Mountains resident has died; 73-year-old Last Chance Road resident Tad Jones was likely trying to flee the area when he died, CBS News reported. Other people have been reported missing.

On the other hand, Cal Fire has repeatedly stressed that they haven’t had adequate crew sizes to keep up with battling a blaze of this size and threat; the locals say they are there to help.

Santa Cruz-San Mateo County Cal Fire Chief Ian Larkin says he can’t confirm whether these residents have helped the firefighting effort, even if the circumstantial evidence appears strong. “I know there’s a few homeowners that stayed behind and their homes are still standing and the fire did burn around that,” he tells GT.

Nonetheless, he says that the mountain residents may not have the proper training to understand what to do and how to get to safety if conditions change suddenly.

“The property can be replaced. The life can’t,” Larkin says. “And that’s our main concern—the safety of the citizen.”

FIRE POWER

The CZU Lightning Complex fire, which was sparked by an atypical lightning storm Aug. 16, is now 17% contained, having destroyed 330 structures, 319 of them in Santa Cruz County, local Cal Fire Chief Jonathan Cox told reporters Tuesday morning. After starting out as several separate burns, the fires merged into one large blaze, which is currently threatening an additional 24,000 structures. Some 77,000 residents have evacuated.

Cal Fire has 1,611 personnel fighting the fire. Six helicopters dropped 200,000 gallons of water on it Monday, Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Mark Brunton told reporters. The most challenging part of the fire response right now is the western slope along the Highway 9 corridor, which has a steep topography and a number of homes and businesses. 

Meanwhile, 33 law enforcement officers, including sheriff’s deputies, were patrolling the San Lorenzo Valley Monday. Officers conducted 11 welfare checks, made two arrests and issued two citations, Chief Deputy Clark said.

Deputies arrested five looters Friday, and more information came out Monday about the suspect who stole a Cal Fire commander’s wallet over the weekend. The thief drained the victim’s bank account, Clark said. The sheriff’s office released security camera stills of the suspect shopping at a Shell gas station in Santa Cruz. He also visited the Safeway on 41st Avenue, Clark said. 

STATEWIDE PROBLEM

Fires are burning across California at a historic rate, particularly along the Central Coast and in Northern California.

In a one-week period, an area the size of Rhode Island burned in California. Regional Cal Fire chiefs begged state leadership for more resources, but crews were focused on fires in Southern California. As containment of those fires improved, Gov. Gavin Newsom began shifting crews to Northern California and to the Central Coast, where the fires have been much worse.

The second- and third-biggest fire events in California history are currently burning across various counties in the Bay Area.

The SCU Lightning Complex fire in the counties of Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin and Stanislaus is 15% contained, having burned more than 363,000 acres. The LNU Lightning Complex in the counties of Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Yolo and Solano is 27% contained, having burned more than 352,000 acres.

The River Fire in Monterey County has burned more than 48,000 acres and is 33% contained.

On Thursday, Aug. 20, Newsom was in Watsonville, where he gave his address for the Democratic National Convention in front of a redwood tree. The next day, he was in Napa, where he said he was leaning into the state’s mutual-aid firefighting system. He thanked states that provided mutual firefighting and equipment, including Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Texas.

Newsom mentioned that, on a trip through Santa Clara County Thursday evening, he saw San Jose firefighters as they made a pit stop. He said they looked wiped out when they told him, “We need more support.”

“They were simply overwhelmed by what they saw,” Newsom said. “They were on a quick stop. They were getting some gas and getting some drinks. And they said, ‘We’re just going to the hotel down the block. We’re taking a shower, and we’re told we have to get right back on the line.’”

By Friday, Aug. 21, there were more than 500 fires burning across the state, Newsom said.

FOREWARNED

A National Weather Service Red Flag warning went into effect Sunday with the potential for more dry lightning and wind—the same conditions that created the widespread fires one week prior, but the warning was cancelled Monday morning when conditions weakened.

In Santa Cruz County, action is underway to help those in need during the fire, while heavy smoke has blanketed the region. Santa Cruz County is distributing N-95 respirator masks to Pajaro Valley agriculture workers to protect them from smoke inhalation.

A donation center on 114 Walker St. in Watsonville is accepting non-perishable food items, family-sized tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, blankets, pillows, tarps, and ice chests/coolers. People may also donate hand sanitizer, personal hygiene products, toiletries, large plastic storage bins, coloring books and crayons.

The donation center and temporary shelters are looking for volunteers, as well. Visit scvolunteercenter.org for more information. 

Additional reporting by Tony Nuñez, Johanna Miller and Todd Guild.


Follow continuing in-depth fire coverage here and in our live blog.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Joey

    September 2, 2020 at 7:40 pm

    This militia that stays to save property are NOT heros.
    If they get in over their heads, resources have to be used to save the militia.
    If this militia is operating under the radar, the Fire Crew can possibly re-direct a fire toward them.

    is protecting property worth losing your life?????
    Like trump said: it is your fault if you die doing stupid things

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