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Revisiting the Report That Warned About the County’s Wildfire Risk

A Grand Jury report called out several factors in wildfire risk

The CZU Lightning Complex fire, which has charred 85,218 acres, has burned 1,453 structures, making it the ninth-most destructive blaze in California history. PHOTO: CAL FIRE CZU

Rich Goldberg has several air filters running at full blast in his Santa Cruz Mountains home, but that hasn’t been enough to stop him from developing a cough from the CZU Lightning Complex fire nearby.

Goldberg, foreperson for the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury, predicts that people will be talking about how to reduce fire risk long after crews extinguish the current blaze.

This past June and July, Goldberg and his fellow grand jurors released 10 reports, including two on the topic of fire safety, as previously reported by GT (“Turning Up the Heat,” 7/15). One of those reports highlighted reasons the county was at risk for a serious wildfire.

Goldberg will be the first to admit that it’s too early to know whether the issues highlighted by the Grand Jury contributed to the devastating CZU Lightning Complex fire.

“I would never engage in ‘I told you so,’” says Goldberg, who watched the evacuation orders closely and was relieved not to be one of the 77,000 forced to leave. “But clearly, these issues are going to be top of mind going forward.”

So far, firefighting crews have contained 43% of the CZU Lightning Complex fire, which has charred 85,218 acres as of Tuesday morning. The fire has burned 1,453 structures, making it the ninth-most destructive blaze in California history, and investigators are still surveying the damage.

HOT SEAT

In an era when hot temperatures and drought conditions are spreading wildfire more rapidly than ever, fire departments are relying on new technology for a helping hand.

Wildfire detection cameras can keep an eye on forests, often catching fires as soon as they start. One problem, as noted by the Grand Jury report, is that the Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Unit (CZU) only had one such camera for Santa Cruz County. Perched in Bonny Doon, the camera faced toward San Mateo County, not Santa Cruz County, and it was not capable of rotating to scan the area.

Cal Fire CZU Chief Ian Larkin says he isn’t sure if the crews got any good information off the camera in the early days of the current conflagration, while the fire started and spread. That fire quickly destroyed the camera on Wednesday, Aug. 19. The last image it took was a red blur, as flames engulfed the tower where the camera stood.

Since then, Cal Fire has added two new ALERTWildfire cameras, and Larkin says he can rotate them remotely to scan the mountainside. Plus, he says Cal Fire has initiated conversations with the city of Santa Cruz about placing a wildfire camera on the Municipal Wharf, facing back toward the mountains, to watch for future incidents.

The Grand Jury report also revealed that many local fire districts need to improve their response times, and additionally, it laid out the ecosystem of 10 separate fire districts in Santa Cruz County—home to about 273,000 residents. Other counties, like Contra Costa and Los Angeles, have one unified fire chief for their entire region. The report argued that Santa Cruz County’s more complex framework creates a confusing web of bureaucracy, an unclear chain of command, various inconsistencies and little accountability.

Larkin, who disagrees with those findings, says there are many ways to organize fire departments, and he doesn’t believe Santa Cruz County’s arrangement is inefficient or problematic.

He stresses the unprecedented nature of the situation. The state of California saw more than 10,000 lightning strikes—many of them unaccompanied by rain—over the course of three days, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom. The strikes started several large fires on the Central Coast and in the Bay Area. (The second- and third-biggest wildfires in state history are still burning in counties nearby.) Firefighters were already fighting a fire in southern California, leaving them thinly stretched across the state. “It delayed us getting any resources to us because they simply weren’t available,” Larkin said.

The Grand Jury requires written responses from 16 government agencies, officials and elected bodies. It’s requesting responses from nine more. All those responses are due Oct. 1.

A report from Joe Serrano, executive officer of Santa Cruz Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), agrees with many Grand Jury findings about the inefficiencies and limited oversight among the county’s fire agencies. LAFCO is planning a comprehensive service review of all fire districts in Santa Cruz County due in October of 2021. 

LAFCO will discuss the Grand Jury’s findings on Wednesday, Sept. 2 at 9am.

BURNING POINT

The Grand Jury report didn’t lay blame solely at the feet of government officials. The general public in the county, the report argued, was woefully unprepared for the fire risk and did not show an appropriate level of concern about the havoc that wildfires can wreck.

It’s a topic that Cal Fire officials, like Larkin, have hammered home over the past two weeks. Larkin says it has been much easier to save houses where residents cleared dead brush and flammable objects from being anywhere near their homes.

Larkin says he’s seen homes where the owner took proper precautions to protect their homes interspersed with those that did not. Oftentimes, he says, those who protected their homes also protected their neighbors. But at the same time, those who ignored rules about clearing flammable material, he adds, endangered the homes of their neighbors.

“You have the house that didn’t do defensible space burn down; it burned down the house that did all the work; and the house that did all the work protects the house next to it that doesn’t have the defensible space,” he says. “And there are many examples of that throughout the community that are affected by that now.”

https://twitter.com/CALFIRECZU/status/1299759781209542656/photo/1

California’s defensible space laws are especially strict for the 10 yards surrounding each home. For starters, California law requires that homeowners remove dead or dry leaves and pine needles from your yard, roof and rain gutters, and within 30 feet of their houses, homeowners should remove dead plants, grass and weeds. To firefighters, all this is considered fuel for a potential blaze. There are many other regulations, some of them extending to a 100-foot radius surrounding each house.

Cal Fire CZU, in its capacity as the Santa Cruz County Fire Department, does local defensible space inspections throughout the year. Larkin says he and other local Cal Fire leaders have determined that it’s best to deal with violations by working with the homeowner. Issuing citations doesn’t do much good, he says.

“If you look at the areas that don’t have defensible space, I think it would overwhelm the DA’s office with a bunch of misdemeanor fines,” he says. “We try to just gain compliance through the inspections and working with the communities. But I’ll be honest, I think we can do a better job. And after this incident is done, I think it’ll be a rude awakening for a lot of folks. We have fire here. We have a history of fires here.”

Many observers over the past couple weeks have pointed out the perfect storm of fire conditions—dry lightning strikes accompanied by heavy wind. But lest anyone assume this is a once-in-a-generation event, it’s worth considering that recent fire conditions could have been even worse—or at the very least that Santa Cruz County could be primed for a perfect storm of entirely different conditions in the future.  

For instance, although the initial days of the CZU fire were hot and free of fog, a heavy marine layer did eventually set in, helping with the fight against the fire on the ground—a cooling event that can’t always be counted on.

Not only that, but the Grand Jury report notes that most Santa Cruz County residents live in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), which is at particular risk for wildfire. That means that wildfire risk isn’t confined to Bonny Doon and to Boulder Creek, where much of the current CZU fire is burning. The WUI stretches throughout the entire region. Santa Cruz County is the only county in the state with the majority of its land in the WUI. Also, according to a joint analysis by USA Today and the Arizona Republic, several local communities have very high wildfire risk—the highest among them being Lompico, which was spared from the nascent flames and which recently had its evacuation orders lifted.

Even the city of Santa Cruz—most of which is not in the WUI—is not immune from threat. It is home to several large groves of non-native blue gum eucalyptus trees, known to be particularly flammable, as noted in the report. The city has, however, made investments in clearing out fuel buildup in overgrown areas, like DeLaveaga Park, in recent years.

In general, Larkin stresses that it’s important to remember that Santa Cruz County does have the potential to burn.

“We don’t have that frequency of large fires. We have a lot of small fires that we’re able to contain,” Larkin says. “We meet our mission of keeping them under 10 acres 90% of the time. We get the nice Mediterranean climate. We get the cooling coastal influence, but people don’t realize that this area is primed to burn. We are in a drought situation, and we haven’t had significant rainfall in our winters for many years. And even when we’ve had significant rainfall, we’ve still had fires those years. We dry out very quickly here.”

For information on LAFCO’s Sept. 2 meeting, visit santacruzlafco.org.


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

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