A segment of the CZU fire burn scar.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wildfires

Cal Fire talks ‘drought and climate change’ while breaking down response to CZU Lightning Complex fires

The first of two virtual community meetings summarized the CZU Lightning Complex fires and covered how conditions were such that 64,000 acres burned within Santa Cruz County in August.

The consistent message from Cal Fire on Monday during the first of two community meetings with Santa Cruz County residents was that the organization had been under-resourced and unprepared for a fire of the magnitude of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, which was unlike anything firefighters had dealt with before.

“San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties were deemed the asbestos unit; nothing burned here because of the redwood forest and the moisture we have,” Cal Fire’s CZU San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit chief Ian Larkin said. “Well, that has changed drastically, and that’s due to years of drought and climate change.”

The fire was declared contained on Sept. 22 and controlled on Dec. 28 after killing one person, burning 86,509 acres — 63,754 of them in Santa Cruz County — and destroying 1,490 structures, most of them houses in Santa Cruz County. The cost of the fire exceeded $68 million, Larkin said.

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Going over the timeline of the fire, Larkin and deputy chief Nate Armstrong shared ominous maps and photos of its progression.

Despite its quickly growing size, at first the CZU fire was just one of many large fires in the state. It was days before the fire’s magnitude made it a top priority — meaning firefighters were being diverted from elsewhere.

“We wanted firefighters by the thousands and they were trickling in by the tens, or sometimes if we were lucky by the hundreds over the course of a day,” Armstrong said. One of the other fires burning at the same time as the CZU Complex ended up torching a total of a million acres — the first million acre fire in California history.

A map of the fires burning in California during the same time period as the CZU fire.
A map of the fires burning in California during the same time period as the CZU fire.
(CZU San Mateo-Santa Cruz Cal Fire Unit)

“We were in steep, steep competition for resources,” Armstrong said.

In addition to the lack of resources, the firefighters were literally in the dark when it came to one of the most destructive fires, the blaze that burned Last Chance Road, destroying many structures and causing the fire’s only fatality, 73-year-old Tad Jones.

“That fire that encroached on Last Chance, we couldn’t see at night,” Armstrong said. The blaze built in intensity when they were unable to see it. He added that the fire moved in from the north at a speed no one expected.

This first meeting served residents of Bonny Doon, Davenport, and the North Santa Cruz County Coast, and community members in attendance had hundreds of questions for the fire chiefs. Many revolved around why evacuation orders weren’t issued sooner.

“I just wanted to point out the loss of life that we had in Last Chance, the fact that it was only one, is solely due to our neighbors looking out for each other,” a participant who only identified herself as Crystal said. “The evac warning was way too late.”

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Unanswered, in the chat, another resident echoed her concerns: “Why weren’t we notified to evacuate Last Chance until it would have been too late to survive!”

Larkin and Armstrong acknowledged that the evacuation systems needed to be improved upon, though they maintained that much of the issue on Last Chance was that the fire grew so quickly and that this growth happened at night, when it was less visible to air surveillance.

Looking forward, fuel reduction and better enforcement of defensible space regulations were identified as areas to improve. But the long-term problem — a fire season that now lasts year-round throughout the state — has no easy solution.

“We live in a forested area that has no real fire history in the last 100 years of recorded fire history,” Larkin said. Now, “our fuel moistures are dropping drastically and they’re not recovering.”

“I’m nervous about this coming fire season,” he added. “We have not seen that significant recovery in our fuel moistures, and that’s due to the lack of rain. So, it’s going to be a nerve-wracking year.”

Here are the details for the virtual meetings:

• The first took place on Monday, March 15, focusing on Santa Cruz County Supervisorial District 3, encompassing Bonny Doon, Davenport, and the North Santa Cruz County Coast.

WATCH THE RECORDING BELOW:

• The second is set for between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 16, focusing on Santa Cruz County Supervisorial District 5, which encompasses the San Lorenzo Valley (Felton, Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek, Zayante and Scotts Valley).

People can attend on Zoom by clicking this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81324931632

They also can dial in at (669) 900-6833 and key in the webinar ID: 813 2493 1632.