Notice: Undefined index: storySection in /home/santacru/public_html/story.php on line 8 Martin Fire: Blaze razes 10 homes; 600 acres burned; 25 percent containment - June 13th,2008 by Jennifer Squires and Donna Jones
Jennifer Squires and Donna Jones - Sentinel Staff Writers
Article Launched: 06/13/2008 1:00:00 AM MDT
BONNY DOON -- The Martin Fire had destroyed 10 homes, torched 600 acres and was 25 percent contained late Thursday, and Cal Fire officials said the blaze was actually smaller than originally thought.
Fire at a glance
ACRES BURNED: 600, downgraded after field mapping.
CONTAINED: 25 percent.
STRUCTURES DESTROYED: 10 homes.
EVACUATIONS: 1,500 people from Pine Flat Road, Smith Grade, Moon Rock Road, Ice Cream Grade Road and Martin Road.
SHELTER: About 40 people at Scotts Valley Middle School.
CAUSE: Under investigation.
COUNTY: Santa Cruz.
LOCATION: Bonny Doon and Martin roads.
FIREFIGHTERS: 889 firefighters; 31 fire crews, 61 engines, 2 air tankers, 9 water tenders, 6 helicopters.
FIRE STARTED: 1400 block of Martin Road.
ANIMAL EVACUATIONS: Santa Cruz Animal Services Authority is available to help evacuate livestock and domesticated animals. Call 454-7303, ext. 0. Livestock are being housed at the Graham Hill Showgrounds. Pets are at Animal Services, 27 Janus Way, Scotts Valley.
ROAD CLOSURES: Alba Road at Empire Grade Road, Empire Grade at UCSC, Felton Empire Road at Smith Road, Pine Flat at Morelli Ranch, Empire Grade at Smith Road, Ice Cream Grade at Pine Flat Road, Ice Cream Grade at Martin Road, Pine Flat Road at Ice Cream Grade Road, Pine Flat at Quail Road, Pine Flat Road at Empire Grade, Pine Flat at Morelli Ranch, Bonny Doon at Smith Road.
VOLUNTEERING TO ASSIST: The Volunteer Centers of Santa Cruz County are pre-registering volunteers. Call 427-5070 or visit www.scvolunteercenter.org.
DONATIONS: Santa Cruz County Bank is accepting donations. Call 457-5000 or drop off.
The fire ignited Wednesday afternoon in the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve on Martin Road in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Cal Fire spokesman Paul Van Gerwen said the fire didn't shrink but that the numbers released Thursday night were more accurate because the field observers who map the fire had been out all day checking the lines. The earlier numbers were developed in the dark overnight.
He couldn't predict when the fire would be fully contained and said fire officials had no official point of origin or cause of the fire.
But the effort of firefighters, helped by favorable wind conditions, was clear in the sky above the ridge-top base camp Thursday evening. The thick column of smoke rising behind the tree line at the old airport on Empire Grade in the morning was gone, replaced with a gray haze.
"It was a very successful day," Van Gerwen said.
Still, he called two fires in Santa Cruz County this early in the season "alarming." Fuel is at a critical stage, he said, and unless typical seasonal fog comes in, there could be more fires.
The wind-whipped, brush-fueled Martin Fire was the latest in a batch of wildfires that ignited over the past two days in Northern California, from the coast to the Sierra foothills -- an ominous sign for the summer.
"The biggest concern is that we are having a lot of fire activity," Van Gerwen said. "The vegetation is in a critical state, and we're going to be coming up on the Fourth of July and all the concerns around that."
The blazes scattered across Northern California were taxing firefighters' ability to stay on top of them, Van Gerwen said, making them worry how they'll handle the next one.
"The resources we have stationed around the state are all being tied up," Van Gerwen said. "When you have five or six fires going, you start to have things spread pretty thin. ... Any new fires that occur, there's a risk of not being able to control them."
With vegetation already parched and browned by a record rain-less spring, the winds only make things drier, and any spark can quickly fan a raging blaze, Van Gerwen said. Vegetation normally isn't this dry until August.
"The state of the vegetation is two months ahead of schedule," he said.
Winds on Thursday were gusting locally between 10 and 15 mph, according to the National Weather Service, and fire crews were dealing with temperatures reaching the mid-90s in some spots.
There is some potential good news for the almost-900 firefighters: Friday's temperatures will be in the high 70s and low 80s, and ocean air could begin blowing onshore, creating cooler and more humid conditions.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a state of emergency Thursday morning saying "the state is committed to doing whatever it takes to assist the locals and provide the resources needed to battle the Martin Fire" as the cost of battling the fire reached $800,000.
One house on the 1100 block of Martin Road was destroyed Wednesday evening, neighbors and firefighters stationed in the area said. Homes inside the ecological reserve and one on Warren Drive, which is off of Smith Grade Road, were damaged. Cal Fire officials did not say where the other destroyed homes were located.
Firefighters battling the blaze Thursday worried the blaze would creep into the steep, heavily wooded canyons to the east. Firefighters stationed on houses on Warren Drive, off Smith Grade Road, said heavy fuels and steep terrain -- not wind and the heat -- were pushing the fire along.
The blaze burned in the Greggiardo Creek and Laguna Creek drainages, but was largely controlled by hand-dug fire lines and helicopters dropping water on the 10-foot-high flames.
Early Thursday, crews bulldozed a fire line around 100 houses surrounded by fir and pine trees on Pine Ridge, off Empire Grade Road. A large, orange inflatable reservoir held 25 gallons of water at the ready for firefighters from Aptos/La Selva Fire and Cal Fire. All along the hills, the terrain was littered with manzanita and dead pines, branches and pine cones covering the ground, ashes drifting down on the firefighters. While smoke billowed in their direction and they were ready for structure protection, they weren't put to the test Thursday.
Steve Vratny, a firefighter with Aptos/La Selva, up on Pine Ridge said the conditions look like late September, making firefighters sort of nervous.
A firefighter for 19 years, Vratny said, "It's kind of hard waiting. You sit here and breathe smoke all day and then they'll send us home."
Aptos/La Selva Capt. Mike Conrad said the fire is getting knocked back down, but the worry is "it's backing down slow." The concern is once it gets down it will start back again and race up the other side.
At the Bonny Doon volunteer fire station on Empire Grade, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office has set up a command post to operate its evacuation center. With a giant map on the wall, dots marking the evacuation areas, deputies plan their next move should the fire force their hand.
Evacuees and residents on the cusp of evacuation gathered there for updates, but were largely without information. They traded rumors and critiqued the map, speculating where the fire may have moved in the hours since it had been updated.
Deputies said they had no timeline for allowing people to return to their homes.
California Highway Patrol officers were told Thursday morning to enact "hard closures" at roads leading to the fire zone, meaning no one but emergency personnel and media were allowed beyond their road blocks unless they had a law enforcement escort. Previously, residents had been allowed to walk in to their homes.
"Right now we're pretty much not letting anyone in there so they can fight the fire," said CHP officer Dave Reed, who was stationed at Bonny Doon and Smith Grade roads.
He said the goal of the closure was to provide easy access for fire trucks and to prevent the need to re-evacuate an area should the fire kick up again. However, dozens of vehicles were parked on the shoulder of the road below the closure. Reed said they belonged to residents who already had walked to their homes and hadn't returned. He said there was no definitive tally of which residents were inside the fire zone.
The American Red Cross Santa Cruz County chapter announced Thursday afternoon it was moving the evacuee shelter from San Lorenzo Valley Middle School, where it housed 30 people Wednesday night, to Scotts Valley Middle School at 8 Bean Creek Road due to a change in wind direction that was causing a decrease in air quality in the San Lorenzo Valley.
Van Gerwen said Cal Fire officials have to assess downed power lines, weakened tree limbs and burned-out stump holes before any residents are allowed back in. He also advised residents to think ahead, in case another fire breaks out this summer.
"I only hope folks heed this warning," Van Gerwen said. "If I lived out here, I would make my home a model of defensible space."
He also advised residents to prepare for fires by having drills and deciding now what to take if the call comes to evacuate.
"Twenty minutes is not long enough to mull over what's important," he said, "And you might not have 20 minutes."
However, some decided to brave the flames Wednesday night and fight for their properties.
Hank Moeller stayed to protect his Martin Road property, where he lives with his wife, two sons and a renter. He and his sons own fire equipment and a pump. They put it to use fighting the blaze alongside firefighters Wednesday night. They managed to sop the fire 25 feet from their home.
Moeller has lived on the property for 50 years and has fire equipment just for such a situation.
"Every summer we expect something like this to happen," he said.
Other residents, like Gary and Florence Martin, are hoping the fire is put out quickly so they can return to their homes. The couple lives in Bonny Doon and stayed up Wednesday night hosing down their home on Wild Iris Road, where the flames were about 800 feet away.
"We could see the flames," said Gary Martin, a musician. "It was pretty intense."
They've been living in this woodsy part of the world for about 20 years, and every summer, there's talk of a potential fire in the thick, dry forest. They hope it wasn't a group of partyers who started the fire, as some have speculated. People often hang out and light bonfires in the nearby sandstone quarry, the couple said.
"I always worry about goons starting a fire," Gary Martin said.
Genevieve Bookwalter, Lisa Hirschmann, Melissa Weaver, Conan Knoll, Sarah Quelland, Julie Copeland and MediaNews contributed to this report.