Cal Fire CZU Unit Chief Ian Larkin
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

A megafire could happen again this year: CZU Unit Chief Ian Larkin looks ahead

Cal Fire Chief Ian Larkin reflects on what this year’s fire season could have in store — and what it has already thrown at us: five noteworthy fires to date.

Last year’s CZU Lightning Complex fire, which burned 86,509 acres (about 134 square miles), was truly unprecedented, burning many times more acres than had burned in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties than ever before.

And Cal Fire CZU unit chief Ian Larkin says there’s no reason a similar fire couldn’t happen again this year, the result of environmental changes that make low-growing vegetation and brush drier than in years past.

“There’s definitely something happening and it’s having an effect on our fuels, because our fuels aren’t pulling as much moisture as they should,” Larkin said. On top of that, “we still have a significant amount of fuel left that could burn.”

Map showing the extent of the CZU Lightning complex fire compared to previous fires in the area.
Fire history map for the CZU Lightning Complex and surrounding area.
(CALFire and California Department of Conservation.)

His department has already responded to five significant fires this year, some of them requiring aerial support, which is very unusual for this early in the season. One of the fires started from a property owners’ controlled burn that wasn’t properly extinguished, and another ignited from a “sleeper spot” — active embers in the CZU burn scar that reignited.

“That’s concerning,” Larkin said. “There’s still receptive fuel out there.”

Larkin has previously said the CZU unit of Cal Fire used to be known as the “asbestos unit,” because it just didn’t burn. Now, “something’s definitely changed in the environment,” he said, as the area gets fewer rainy days and more record heat days.

The increased fire risk isn’t unique to the Santa Cruz area, which only makes it more dangerous.

“Thirty years ago, a large fire in California would have been, you know 25,000 to 30,000 acres,” Larkin said. But last year, “we had our first million acre fire, a single fire a million acres up in the August complex up north this year. It burned 97% of the Mendocino National Forest. It’s just insane to have these large fires.”

Larkin and his colleagues have stressed that part of how the CZU fire grew so large last year was a lack of resources, as Cal Fire struggled to respond to other fires throughout the state. This year, Larkin is hopeful he will have enough staff locally to respond as needed, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed $536 million worth of wildfire prevention resources.

But, after seeing what happened last year, Larkin said it’s difficult to know what level of seasonal staffing could ever be enough. “I would be remiss to say that we don’t need more firefighters,” he said.

Now is the time for Santa Cruz residents to begin their now annual preparations for fire season, Larkin warned.

“When you pay your taxes is probably the time you should start prepping for fire season,” Larkin said. “So April 15 is kind of the golden day of, get your go bag together, have a plan, practice your evacuation routes. Make sure you have more than one evacuation route because during a fire we’re not going to tell you which way to go — we’re just going to tell you to leave.”

How to pack a 'go bag'

Experts advise that mountain dwellers pack two emergency kits, one quickly accessible in your house and one in your car. This requires extra care during the COIVD-19 pandemic, even as it ebbs: Be sure to include face masks in your evacuation “go bag.” has some insight into what you should pack in your emergency kit. They suggest storing your things in airtight plastic bags and to put your entire disaster supplies kit in one or two easy-to-carry plastic bins or duffel bags. Here’s what to pack:

  • Water (one gallon per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation)
  • Food (at least a three-day supply of non-perishables)
  • Cell phone with chargers and a backup battery
  • Battery-powered or hand crank radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Extra batteries
  • Whistle (to signal for help)
  • Dust mask (to help filter contaminated air)
  • Plastic sheeting and duct tape (to shelter in place)
  • Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties (for personal sanitation)
  • Wrench or pliers (to turn off utilities)
  • Manual can opener (for food)
  • Local maps

Depending on your needs, you may also consider packing these additional things in your go-bags:

  • Prescription medications
    Non-prescription medications such as pain relievers, anti-diarrhea medication, antacids or laxatives
  • Prescription eyeglasses and contact lens solution
  • Infant formula, bottles, diapers, wipes and diaper rash cream
  • Pet food and extra water for your pet
  • Cash or traveler’s checks
  • Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records saved electronically or in a waterproof, portable container
  • Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person
  • Complete change of clothing appropriate for your climate and sturdy shoes
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Matches in a waterproof container
  • Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
  • Mess kits, paper cups, plates, paper towels and plastic utensils
  • Paper and pencil
  • Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children