Summary of last week’s article: the CZU August Complex Lighting Fire approaches Boulder Creek, and Boulder Creek Fire Protection District Chief Mark Bingham calls for an evacuation order, protecting thousands of lives.
We continue the story in Boulder Creek Fire Chief Mark Bingham’s words:
“As everyone in the Valley has learned by now, there are evacuation zones that are mapped out, and residents can find their location on those maps. When I figured out we needed an immediate evacuation, I selected the routes based on the impending danger, population and road access. We evacuated some people along Hwy 236 down, towards the east, and then south on Highway 9; the other Hwy 236 residents were evacuated towards the coast, residents who live on Highway 9 north of Bear Creek Road, we sent out towards Santa Clara; residents on Bear Creek Road were diverted out towards Highway 17, and the last group, which includes the business district and residents down to Brookdale, were sent south on Highway 9 towards Santa Cruz. By sending everyone in different directions, and evacuating residents from top to bottom—all on the same night—we kept residents moving safely without plugging up routes. The maps are already built and the zones are already there, but the implementation is up to each District Chief based on conditions and hazards. I determined the routes and the timing, working with law enforcement to implement that plan based on the predicted fire behavior. I remember being outside the station and seeing our flag blowing towards the east, and I just knew that fire was headed right for us. The 236 corridor was especially dangerous—between the wind and the terrain, that fire was going to get pushed right down the mountain.
“By Tuesday night, I started calling all fire personnel to come into the station. I told them we were going to be impacted by a fire, and I didn’t know when it was going to hit the district, nor how big it was going to be, but I had made the decision to evacuate all residents. We have an internal system that we use for notification of personnel; both the Netcom dispatch center and the Felton Command Center were made aware of our evacuation order. Immediately, my phone started ringing off the hook. There’s a rotating zone coordinator for Santa Cruz County that is notified when there’s a big incident, and that person is responsible for contacting dispatchers to advise movement of personnel in the county to make sure that all areas are still covered. Our local government did an amazing job of getting ready, working with the zone coordinator and calling in the operations area coordinator (which happens to be the local Unit Chief with CalFire). The operations area coordinator then deferred his position to his backup, which was the Scotts Valley Fire Chief—that was a great decision because then they could split responsibilities between managing CalFire assets and overseeing local governance of the incident.
“I made sure that all of our volunteers that were evacuating the town were on notice, and they received notification at the same time all the residents did, which was via reverse 9-1-1 calls. At that point, the danger was imminent—it was just a straight evacuation order, and that included the families of our personnel. There were no favors given to anyone. Our volunteers helped remove their families from the area, and then returned to the station, ready to engage. I gave a brief plan of action, and an estimated timeline of when I thought the incident might impact the district, and then got in touch with CalFire in Felton to determine our next move. While I was meeting with our volunteers, the operations area coordinator was contacting other local jurisdictions like Watsonville, Aptos and Santa Cruz to let them know of the impending need for support in our valley—“it’s all built in”-county mutual aid through local government.
“I also placed a call to a friend, who’s a local retired Boulder Creek firefighter [NOTE: he chose to remain anonymous for this story], and I asked him to come to the station and be my scribe. I needed someone to take notes and document all the things I was saying and doing during the course of this incident, and he agreed to assist me. I was relieved that he was there to write down what had already happened, what was happening next, and every move I made along the way. I knew it all needed to be recorded, and he’s been with me since the 17th of August, capturing everything. We went down to the CalFire Command Center together to find out what resources we had on the way, what was known about the fire, hoping to hear that help was on the way. What I found out was they were already stretched thin and had very limited resources available. They have responsibility over all of Santa Cruz County, and they were spread into San Mateo County for this fire, which is also within their jurisdiction. At this point, there were fires in Santa Clara County as well, and everyone was calling for resources and support. CalFire had sent some help into our area, and I was glad for that, but it was not the level of assistance we required. 7,500 acres is a big fire for Santa Cruz County—the wind direction combined with a six-mile spot was confirmation that it was going to impact us, and I needed more.
“I inquired about air support and was told that none was available that evening, and they weren’t sure if any would be available the next day (Tuesday, August 18). I left them to figure out their plan, and returned to Boulder Creek; my friend and I headed to the top of the ridge to try and scout it out ourselves and determine how close it was, and before we even got to the edge of our district on the eastern side, you could see the glow on the mountain along Upper China Grade Road, and see the direction the smoke was headed—straight down 236. The embers were coming right down that gully, and from there it was off to the races; we spread out everywhere we could to try and put out spot fires and control the spread. There were sheriff’s officers who were stationed along our roads and were calling all clear for residences, so we started pinning private road gates and logging gates open for access; that helped with what happened next, which was we started to get local government help from other Santa Cruz County agencies to assist with structure protection.
“It was all a blur after that—the fire came over the mountain and overran us several times. We would get into one neighborhood, and save ten homes but lose two, and then in another neighborhood we’d lose six and save one. We started to pull back down to town to regroup; we were becoming exhausted and we needed to resupply our engines with water. We basically fought it all the way down the 236 drainage and down West Park, and the ridge coming off of Braemoor Drive down to the back of town. We pulled back to town and had an impromptu operational briefing where I gave instructions as to what we would do if we had to hold the town. Part of our plan to hold the town was to leave some resources along Central Avenue, and run patrol along the Highway 9 corridor in town, including a few blocks in each direction and lower 236. We would engage engines up towards the fire from there, and do what we could to fend it off. As the fire front was coming, it was moving in different directions and blowing in very fast; it would move through one neighborhood, and we’d have to remove ourselves due to heat and the extreme nature of it, and then we’d dive right back in after it had passed through. We were putting out fires behind houses and on houses and then chasing it to the next home where we’d battle it again, and we were just…I don’t know how many hours straight we went. We would fight fire all day, and then every evening it would come back in hard, and push down the mountain, just like clockwork. All day it would blow West toward town and between 6pm and 8pm, the wind would carry it southwest down the 236 drainage area, and we’d watch the sparks and embers blow off and start a spot fire. And then another spot fire. And another one. And then it would continue to travel down the ridge towards town. That happened four nights in a row where it would threaten, threaten, threaten, and then it would die down at the last minute. It was crazy. The only thing that gave me the calm and clarity to create a plan and work the fire was that we were going to hold town, no matter what. We had a Plan A, and a contingency plan, and an emergency plan. It was a fight.
“It got within a block of town up West Park. It was just a block behind Scopazzi’s and it burned down to the church on Highway 9, including the town graveyard. It burned south for a while along 9, and then went back up the mountain. As the days went on, we started to get more resources from CalFire and out-of-area strike teams, but it was a few days into the incident. I was able to find a trail that connected behind Paone Drive, and all the way around the cemetery behind the elementary school, and got tied in with two hand crews from CalFire. We formed the plan and assisted them in a firing operation and held the school with a couple of engines as it was just ripping behind the school.
In firing operations, crews progress so as to maintain a safety zone close at hand allowing the fuels inside the control line to be consumed before going ahead. (Wikipedia)
“It was one of those cliché moment where we said, “Come hell or high water, we’re holding town and we’re holding our school.” We tried to hold the water treatment plant, but we couldn’t—the fire ran us out of there. We had two engines up there trying to hold infrastructure because we know that power and water are what keep people here. If you don’t have a town, people aren’t going to rebuild; if you lose homes, that’s terrible, but if you lose your whole town, people are pretty unlikely to build back, and if you lose your school, it’s hard to get folks to come back and start over. While all of this was going on, we still had crews out in neighborhoods, knocking down flames on houses and holding lines. It was a matter of how many resources we could send out, and how many we needed to hold back. We were on West Park, fighting the fire and trying to slow its progression—it was right above the library. We were getting closed off on the south end, because it was coming out onto 9, and we were prepared to ride it out in the center of town, while it burned over us. None of our volunteers once said they needed to go back to check on their own homes. Not once. We all knew that we were going to do what we could to save town, and not worry about ours. We were prepared for the fight.”
Next week, the final installment: Town is spared, but the battle continues as losses mount.