Hundreds in Calif. evacuated as wildfire destroys home


SAN JOSE, Calif. — A wind-whipped fire that broke out early
Sunday morning burned 600 acres west of Mount Madonna in Santa Cruz County,
forcing the evacuation of up to 100 households.

By Sunday evening, the fire — near the same location as last
year’s Summit Fire, which burned more than 4,200 acres — had destroyed one
mobile home and two outbuildings, said Jim Crawford, a Cal Fire battalion
chief. And the blaze was threatening 160 homes and other structures.

The winds reached nearly 40 mph after the fire started about
3 a.m. “It was hard enough to stand up, let alone fight a fire,”
Crawford said. “It was pretty incredible.”

By early Sunday night, the fire was 20 percent contained.

The area burning is the Maymens Flat area, near Highland
Way, where the devastating Summit Fire began in May 2008. Throughout the day,
nine air tankers and five helicopters dropped fire retardant and water on the

More than 930 firefighters battled the fire, which was
spreading west in steep canyons south of Summit Road. They had 102 fire engines
and 12 bulldozers. Another 1,000 firefighters were expected to arrive by this

The cause of the blaze, dubbed the Loma Fire, has not been

But Crawford said one area where the investigation will
focus is the activity of inmate crews from the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp who
had been working as recently as Friday in the area.

The work, which has taken place since the 1980s, involves
clearing fuel breaks, maintaining trails and roads, and sometimes burning piles
of debris on the Santa Clara County side of Summit Road as part of upkeep of
the Llagas-Uvas watershed, Crawford said. He said he did not know if the crews
had been burning debris recently or if they had caused the fire.

The crews are funded by the Santa Clara Valley Water
District, which provides about $100,000 a year to Cal Fire to contract out
watershed maintenance, said district spokeswoman Susan Siravo. The purpose is
to reduce fire risk and erosion because water from the area ultimately ends up
in Uvas and Chesbro reservoirs, providing drinking water for Silicon Valley
residents, Siravo said,.

She said she didn’t know if the crews had been doing any
debris burning recently because the water district doesn’t supervise the work.
“Cal Fire provides the expertise,” she said. “We defer to

Santa Clara County Battalion Chief Ken McGeever told the
Santa Cruz Sentinel that Cal Fire was in the area doing controlled burns this
past week. “Yes, they were up in this area doing some pile burning,”
McGeever said.


The area burning, generally between Summit Road and Highland
Way in rugged chaparral northeast of the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park,
received a drenching of rain less than two weeks ago. Mount Madonna received
8.1 inches of rain in 24-hour period, and Loma Prieta received 9.2 inches,
during massive storms on Oct. 13 and 14.

But, Crawford said, the rain did not soak trees and brush to
the core.

Rather, it drenched the leaves. Then, during 10 sunny days
afterward the foliage dried and strong winds and low humidity made conditions
more fire-prone.

“They may have gotten rained on, but the inside part
didn’t get real moist,” he said.

It will take a sustained winter season of rain for large
trees and bushes to fully absorb moisture, he added.

Diane Zulliger, who lives on Loma Prieta Way with her
husband, two cats and a dog, said they were alerted to the fire by a neighbor
at 4 a.m.

They had just returned home from a nine-day cruise two hours

“It’s not something you want to come home to,” she

At the Summit Store, a community landmark, things seemed
relatively normal.

“We’ve seen a lot of firemen, but there is no smoke or
ash on the cars,” said store clerk Karen Osborn. “People are all
concerned, though.”

Last year’s Summit Fire burned 4,270 acres over seven days,
consuming 35 homes. A Los Gatos contractor hired to clear brush was charged in
April with setting the blaze. Fire investigators said Channing Verden, 50, was
burning 20 tons of brush and fallen pines he cleared from five acres of land on
the Santa Clara County side of Summit Road. Prosecutors said he left smoldering
two piles of brush he was hired to burn, and had been warned twice by fire
crews that the piles were too high and that he didn’t have a water supply on

Sunday, sheriff’s deputies issued a mandatory evacuation for
people living or working near Ormsby Cutoff and Highland Way.

Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.