“As the specter of climate change increases, so does the fear and likelihood of more wildfires in populated areas. … Santa Cruz County faces increasing risk of life and property damage from a wildfire.”
So begins a Santa Cruz County civil grand jury report released on July 3 — 43 days before lightning sparked a series of fires that only seemed to burn half of the Bay Area. Grand jury reports are meant to illuminate budding problems in the community, but rarely are they this prescient. But then there have been 13 civil grand jury reports highlighting ongoing fire danger in nine California counties since 2007. If California burns to the ground, it won’t be because no one warned us.
The most recent report noted that Santa Cruz County is the only county in the state that falls mostly in the wildland-urban interface — largely rural or forested areas that are increasingly populated. Before the CZU Lightning Complex fires there were about 72,000 homes in the Santa Cruz County wildland-urban interface. Nearly 1,000 of them burned to the ground. In all, 77,000 people were evacuated at the height of the most devastating fires in these parts in recent memory.
One of the lessons we’ve learned again and again is the need for better, earlier warnings. Cal Fire only had one early alert camera in the area at the time of the CZU Lightning Complex fires. Text alerts and other high-tech notifications continue to be imperfect. Our own San Mateo County civil grand jury found last year that only 2 percent of our county residents knew of evacuation routes and emergency shelter sites before they needed them. The Marin County grand jury found last year that 90 percent of that county’s residents had not signed up for emergency alerts.
Again and again, these grand juries have found that we underestimate the potential for fire and just how quickly it moves. In the days after ignition, Cal Fire incident commander Assistant Chief Billy See said the CZU Lightning Complex was devouring 1,000 acres an hour. That is barely a crawl compared to the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise in 2018. The initial spread there was estimated at 4,600 acres an hour.
Many times, firefighters have described being overwhelmed in the early days of wildfire. Cal Fire said repeatedly in the early days of the CZU fires that it lacked resources to do more than keep people safe. Over and over we hear of evacuation roads that are overloaded as terrified residents creep toward safety. And most of us continue to ignore state law that mandates “defensible space” around our homes.
The Santa Cruz County civil grand jury makes more than a dozen recommendations to improve fire safety in a county that has now suffered the most destructive wildfire in recent history. Many are technical and involve better governance of agencies designed to protect us. It goes easier on those of us who choose to live amid the increasing danger.
We should honor the heroic firefighters who are still working to surround the fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains by doing our part — signing up for alerts, receiving emergency training, clearing our property and creating a family fire plan. Until we do, the warnings — and deadly fires — will continue.
— Clay Lambert