Firefighters from Aptos work to extinguish a blaze off of Gillette Road near Watsonville in January.
Firefighters from Aptos work to extinguish a blaze off of Gillette Road near Watsonville in January.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Leftover August CZU embers sparked most January fires as new ‘year-round fire season’ is upon us

Embers from the CZU Lightning Complex fires back in August sparked most of the 20 fires that burned in and around Santa Cruz County in January, Cal Fire Deputy Chief Nate Armstrong said in a 10-minute video posted Sunday morning.

Many of the unprecedented winter fires ranged from 10 to 40 acres. “We don’t typically see anything over maybe a quarter of an acre for most of the year and (we’ll) typically see something of that 10- to 15-acre size happen in the height of fire season,” Armstrong said.

The CZU fires in August devastated the region, burning hundreds of thousands of acres, swallowing homes and upending lives. On Dec. 28, Cal Fire officially declared the CZU fires as controlled. Armstrong explained that, despite this — and the four to eight inches of rain that fell over the region in December — there was still “ground fuel” that was smoldering in remote places that was still “hot enough to spark a fire.”

“People seem to think that everything seemed to burn in the CZU Lightning fire and that’s simply not true,” he said.

Between a wind storm, the still-smoldering embers and the large amount of dry material that was left scorched but not fully burned in August, Armstrong said it created prime conditions for wildfires in January.

The region’s unpredictable weather has been one of the major challenges for fire officials. “While we can see what’s out ahead of a fire as far as what fuel is available or what the topography looks like, when exactly that wind might stop or how far it might blow is really the most variable thing,” Armstrong said.

The unusual January fires are “probably an indicator of maybe what our future is like in this area,” he added. “We used to have a fairly well-defined six- to eight-month (fire season) and it seems to be growing and growing,” he said.

“It’s pretty evident that California is in a year-round fire season at this point.”

A breakdown of what happened

A “fairly significant wind event” bringing 50 to 60 mph gusts swept through the Santa Cruz Mountains on the evening of Jan. 18, Armstrong said.

“On top of our normal, storm-related issues, we had power lines being down, trees being blown down, roads being blocked, etc., we also had the issue of several wildland fires,” Armstrong said.

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By the next morning, as the wind continued, Cal Fire began receiving several reports of wildfires around the county. Two fires, the Panther Ridge fire in Boulder Creek and the Freedom Fire near Watsonville, prompted the days-long evacuation of about 120 nearby homes.

“Throughout the day, we would end up seeing approximately 20 vegetation fires started and fought in the Santa Cruz area,” Armstrong said.

The five major fires that broke out within or near the CZU Lightning Complex burn scar were the 18.8-acre Bonny Complex fires, the 15-acre Panther Ridge Fire, the 15 to 25 acre North Butano fire, the 22-acre China Grade fire and the 9-acre Bloom fire. Cal Fire attributes all to CZU embers.

“Even though we’d recently had a lot of rain, there are still those ground fuels that were hot enough underneath and that wind was able to pick things up and basically just stir up embers,” he said. “Add to that the amount of fresh fuel and dead fuel off those scorched trees from the August CZU Lightning fire — all those falling down added to the fuel able to be burned.”

Armstrong explained that the massive summer fire started as a “ground fire,” burning the ground-level shrubs and trees and scorching the canopies above. Later, it became a “crown fire,” that also swallowed the canopies of the forests and then once again turned into a ground fire.

As a result, within the CZU Lightning Complex burn scar, there were a lot of scorched fuels in the canopies of the forest that were shaken loose by the wind in January, falling to the ground.

Firefighters were able to gain control of most of the fires within the CZU scar area by Thursday, Jan. 21. “While that wind eventually eased that afternoon of the 19th, and allowed us to get good control of on many of these fires, had that wind continued, for even just another 24 to 48 hours, it could have caused significant issues as far as containment,” he said.

The exceptions were the Panther Ridge Fire and Freedom Fire near Watsonville which burned about 37 to 38 acres. “We continued to strengthen our lines on the Panther and the Freedom into the weekend of the 22nd and 23rd when we started to see significant rain. Once we got those rains come into the area, we were able to call those fires fully contained,” Armstrong said.

Did downed power lines play a part?

While Armstrong attributed the cause of many of the January fires to wind and embers from the summer fires, he did not provide a probable cause for the Freedom fire near Watsonville or a few other smaller fires.

“Those fires are all still under investigation, and we don’t comment on fires while they are under investigation,” Cal Fire spokesperson Cecile Juliette said Monday morning. “I was told these incidents will take longer, as there were so many fires to investigate.”

Early concerns expressed by local officials indicated a possible connection between the wind storm that resulted in dozens of downed power lines and damaged utility equipment. PG&E came under fire for not preemptively ordering a Public Safety Power Shutoff in Santa Cruz County due to the wind as it did in various other neighboring counties. However, Armstrong did not speak to these concerns in his Sunday morning briefing.

A message left with a PG&E spokesperson wasn’t immediately returned.

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Challenges of fighting the January fires

Cal Fire crews faced numerous challenges in fighting the unprecedented January fires, Armstrong said:

Wind: The wind that was “swirling around” helped the fires spread and “made things a little difficult for us to control,” Armstrong said.

Inability to use aircraft: “While Cal Fire still has aircraft available right now, once you get above winds of about 30 miles per hour, they’re pretty much ineffective,” he said. To keep the aircraft operators safe and since they would not be effective in the firefighting efforts, Cal Fire chose not to use aircraft to fight the January fires.

Staffing: Unlike the summer months, wildfires in January were unexpected, Armstrong said. As a result, Cal Fire officials faced a staffing problem during the firefighting efforts. “Due to the seasonal ebb and flow of the Cal Fire staff, we are at minimal staffing during the winter preparedness months when we’re mainly focusing on fuel reduction issues,” he said.

Due to the lack of staffing, Cal Fire had to rely heavily on local fire fighting agencies from Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, engines from regional Cal Fire crews and even an inmate firefighting crew from the California Correctional Center in Susanville.

Drought and another fire season

“We are going to be moving into another fire season, that is basically still under the stress of that long-term drought,” Armstrong said.

A lot of the dry, dead fuels that were scorched but not burned in the August fires remain in the area, he said. “We still have plenty of fuel to burn. We still have plenty of opportunity to have vegetation fires within San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.”

The long-term drought conditions that exist in the greater Bay Area are a cause of concern for officials as a new fire season begins.

A National Weather Service Meteorologist shared a comparison of drought conditions in October and February in the area that showed little improvement, except in some areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“Regionally speaking much of the West continues to see widespread drought level conditions, not a welcome sign to start the year,” Mayeda wrote.

Watch Armstrong’s full briefing below: