Winds begin driving Calif. wildfire from foothold on Calif. coast

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San Bernadino City Fire Captain Steve Avila walks the fire line as his crew keeps the Lockheed Fire from crossing Swanton Road, on Friday, August 14, 2009, in Davenport, California. (Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel/MCT)
San Bernadino City Fire Captain Steve Avila walks the fire line as his crew keeps the Lockheed Fire from crossing Swanton Road, on Friday, August 14, 2009, in Davenport, California. (Shmuel Thaler/Santa Cruz Sentinel/MCT)

By Bruce Newman, J.M. Brown, Jennifer Squires and Cathy Kelly

San Jose Mercury News


SAN JOSE, Calif. — Gusting winds whistling up the Santa Cruz Mountains in California are driving the first major wildfire of the season from its foothold a short distance from the ocean toward Highway 9. It’s one of the most scenic routes through the redwoods that drape the hillsides in a combustible curtain.

Swirling winds, dropping humidity and higher temperatures expected over the weekend could create a witch’s brew when mixed with the roaring flames that have already consumed 5,036 acres in two days. “It’s definitely not going to help the fire effort,” said Larry Smith, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Monterey, Calif. “Drier and windier is not going to be a good thing for the fire crews.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to arrive at the fire command post at 10 a.m. Saturday as more than 1,500 firefighters struggle to save the town of Bonny Doon and more than 250 residences. As many as 2,400 residents have been evacuated from the North Coast area in California.

Cal Fire reported the Lockheed fire was 15 percent contained, and a spokesman said full containment wasn’t expected for more than a week. Most of the containment was on the north side of the fire, where the blaze ignited Wednesday night. The cause of the fire is under investigation, said Battalion Chief Julie Hutchinson.

But it was the gusting winds, which could shift again and push the fire southeast towards Bonny Doon, that presented firefighters with their greatest challenge. “Bonny Doon really remains the No. 1 concern for us,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

Along Swanton Road, which runs off Highway 1 and into the heavily wooded area, fire trucks stood vigil at every house, waiting for flames that the firefighters hoped would never come roaring down the hillside. The landscape was a patchwork of blackened grasses, smoldering ash and drifting smoke. There were few visible signs of an active fire, and fire crews took advantage of the lull to cut away brush and vines, moving mulch piles and clearing defensible spaces.

Cal Fire said nearly 1,506 firefighters were battling the blaze. The estimated cost of fighting the fire so far is $750,000.

After leaving their station at 4:30 a.m., a crew from the Kings County Fire Department took a stand at the corner of Purdy and Swanton roads at 8:30 Friday morning. Parked near an old seaside school, Battalion Chief Frank Rohan said the slow-moving fire was eating away fuel without damaging homes. “It’s actually doing good,” he said. “It’s cleaning out the stuff below.”

At the nearby Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project, Santa Cruz Battalion Chief Matt McCaslin sounded a familiar refrain about the unpredictable winds, which the Weather Service expected to gust to 20 miles per hour in the mountain passes this weekend. “The biggest dangers are out of the way,” McCaslin said, “but you could still lose this building if the wind changes.”

Fire crews were allowing anything that wasn’t threatening a building to burn. Everything else, they doused.

The rugged terrain and the depth at which many of the homes are buried in the woods made it difficult for crews to do much more than slow the fire’s progress.

Helicopters zipped back and forth to the ocean filling their buckets at Davenport Landing Beach and points north to feed the thirsty flames. A half-dozen flame retardant drops hit the western edge of the fire in what appeared to be an attempt to ring the fire before it crossed the Scott Creek drainage.

Smoke had not been a problem during the fire’s first day and night, but the shift in the wind from the north was expected to cause breathing problems for people with heart or lung disease. The elderly, children and pregnant women were advised by air quality officials to limit prolonged exertion and stay indoors when possible.

Smoke and ash fell from the sky in places as far away as Salinas, forcing the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District to issue an air quality advisory for the Highway 9 corridor between Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek, as well as Davenport and all areas close to the fire. The advisory also extended from Monterey Bay to Carmel Valley and down the Salinas Valley.

Lt. Gov. John Garamendi signed a state declaration of emergency for the Lockheed fire, saying the order will “bring all necessary resources to this fire,” including personnel, ground equipment and aerial support. Garamendi was acting-governor Friday because Schwarzenegger was in Massachusetts attending the funeral of his mother-in-law, Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Big Basin State Park remained closed at Waddell Creek due to extreme fire danger. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection ordered fire engines from around the state to the scene as the flames bore down on homes, and by late Friday, 230 of the reassuring red trucks were scattered across the mountaintops.

The fire consumed 1,000 acres Friday.

“That’s significant for the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Hutchinson said.

The decision by some homeowners to ignore the evacuation order concerned El Cerrito Fire Department Capt. Terry Pace. “It’s kind of scary. When it’s time to leave, they’re all going to try to leave at once, and the roads up here are narrow,” she said.

At the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project, director Dave Streig was monitoring the welfare of the 30,000 San Lorenzo River steelhead, 5,000 Scott Creek steelhead and 1,700 Coho salmon on what was supposed to be his last day before retirement. Pointing to the Coho salmon, which are listed as “threatened,” Moss said, “We’re really hoping these guys survive.”

They weren’t the only ones.


(Santa Cruz Sentinel staff writers Donna Jones, Alia Wilson and Genevieve Bookwalter contributed to this report.)


(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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