Lightning-sparked fires burned all week in the Santa Cruz Mountains, at times coming threateningly close to the South Coast communities of Loma Mar, La Honda and Pescadero. But, on Tuesday, there was relief: The central areas of each community remained safe.
CalFire reported Tuesday that the CZU August Lightning Complex had burned more than 78,000 acres and cost the life of one Santa Cruz County resident. Most of the South Coast below Highway 84 remained evacuated, with 77,000 people in three counties asked to leave their homes.
Fire officials were optimistic by Tuesday that they were beginning to gain the upper hand. CalFire officials said the fires that burned in parts of two counties were 17 percent contained. Officials reported 330 structures destroyed and another 32 damaged by the fire. Only 11 structures had been destroyed in San Mateo County. More than 1,600 personnel were assigned to firefighting efforts across the fire zone.
Lightning strikes associated with dry thunderstorms on Aug. 16 and 17 ignited hundreds of fires in Northern California. While area residents were awestruck by the electricity in the night sky, some strikes inevitably hit remote, forested areas. High up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the sparks grew into infernos where fire hadn’t swept through the coastal undergrowth in decades. By the afternoon of Aug. 18, the disparate fires had formed large conflagrations that began merging and spreading. Soon, people living near Loma Mar, Dearborn Park, Butano Canyon and Pescadero Creek Park were asked to evacuate. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency due to large fires burning statewide.
For three days, the CZU wildfire was completely uncontained as northerly winds pushed the flames south, deeper into Santa Cruz County. But San Mateo County residents could see flames creeping their direction, too, as the fire navigated the deep, dry canyons that many rural residents call home.
CalFire officials said their efforts were hampered by a lack of resources.
“We have no new resources to put on the line today,” said Jonathan Cox, division chief for CalFire, on Aug. 19.
An evacuation center was established at Pescadero High School, where the American Red Cross, local nonprofit Puente de la Costa Sur, the Coastside Community Emergency Response Team and other volunteers answered questions and distributed hotel vouchers to evacuees in need of shelter. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, communal shelter was not an option, so many residents spent cold nights in their cars awaiting redirection. By Aug. 19, the center was moved to Half Moon Bay High School due to warnings that Pescadero would have to evacuate soon.
Meanwhile, local groups, including the Peninsula Humane Society and SPCA and the San Mateo County Large Animal Evacuation Group worked day and night to get animals out of evacuation zones safely. Hundreds of livestock were transported from the South Coast to safety among generous residents and farms willing to accept and care for them.
The encroaching fire seemed most threatening on Aug. 18 and 19, when a series of maps showed flames moving down the Butano hills and inching toward Loma Mar, and residents of La Honda and Pescadero were ordered out. By Friday, some resources from the state arrived to battle the wildfire, but new concerns emerged.
A Red Flag Warning suggested fresh lightning over the coming weekend, adding to anxieties that shifting weather and a lack of firefighting resources could spread the wildfire and make it more deadly. Coastside residents also worried that an influx of weekend visitors could clog escape routes should the fire move north toward Half Moon Bay. Coastside leaders asked tourists to stay away and closed some beaches, but on Saturday their warnings went largely unheeded.
Fortunately, the expected lightning storms did not materialize over the weekend, and by Saturday evening the fire was 8 percent contained.
On Sunday, Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office reported the first death from the fire, a 73-year-old resident found fleeing the fire at the end of Last Chance Road.
“This is very dark,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark said. “I think this is one of the darkest periods we’ve been in in this fire.”
Soon, the focus turned to protecting property in evacuated areas, mostly in Santa Cruz County, and continuing to encourage residents to stay out of the way. Come Monday, the tone of the reports shifted to relief and cautious optimism, as containment increased with greater resources and favorable weather.
“Over the last 48 hours we’ve had a lot of small wins and they are starting to add up to big wins,” CalFire Assistant Chief Billy See said on Monday. “Mother Nature’s helped us quite a bit.”
On Tuesday, progress remained slow but steady. On the north end, fire lines held even as fire creeped through steep, rugged terrain, and few law enforcement issues were reported on the San Mateo County side.
“The past couple of days, we’ve seen significant progress in our firefight on this incident,” CalFire Operations Chief Mark Brunton said. “The weather is really cooperating with us, and we’re steadily getting a slow trickle of resources in.”