SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - In the South Bay, gains made the past few days battling the CZU August Lighting Complex Fire have officials hoping to repopulate evacuation zones.
Containment continues climbing by roughly five percentage points every two days. This, as firefighters work to remove potential fire fuel before it can catch fire
“Backfiring or burning like this is a common tool that we use. It’s under very specific conditions. We just don’t use it for random action. It’s a very planned event that we use to bring the fire lines to a safe area,” said Brian Newman, a fire behavior analyst for Cal Fire.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Cal Fire crews intentionally set fires in the midst of a mega-brush fire burning portions of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. Firefighters are testing the viability of doing multiple controlled burns, to be executed in an area bounded by El Soylo Road to the south, and Alba Road to the north.
“We’re trying to consume the fuels between the main lines and the control lines without being too aggressive and too hot a burning fire,” said Newman.
This potential problem spot stretches from Felton to southern edge of Ben Lomond.
“Bring the fire up to the, the fire that’s hung up on the ridge top, that will eliminate that issue. And what that will do is create a very nice barrier from the fire for the community of felton,” said Cal Fire Section Chief Mark Brunton.
Firefighters say it could take three to five days to gain the upper hand on the CZU Complex Fire. So far, the 10-day old natural disaster has torched more than 80,000 acres, and destroyed more than 500 structures.
“There’s some big long-term issues to consider as well as getting people safely back into their homes,” said Kelly Snider, a professor in the San Jose State University’s Dept. of Urban & Regional Planning.
Thousands of residents, hold up at about a dozen evacuation sites in Santa Cruz County, say they’re anxious to get back to their homes – if their homes are still standing.
“Very anxious. I was crying today. I miss it,” said evacuee Sari Mitchell, who owns a ranch in Boulder Creek. “it is absolutely weighing on my mind. Yes, we’re all worried about that. And there’s no way we can find out.”
Sheriff’s deputies and police officers continuing patrolling for people violating the evacuation order. This, as damage inspection teams are on the ground assessing the difficulty in repopulating some areas.
“Anywhere to four-to-five days out, we will look at hopefully bringing some sense of normalcy back to this area,” said Cal Fire Incident Commander Bill See. “We have strategic plans to start moving folks back in when it’s safe to do so.”
Experts warn even when this crisis has passed, the danger still exists.
“Is this really the right place for people to be living for the next hundred years? Are we just moving them back into a danger zone,” said Snider.
The controlled burns that are taking place now will continue into the evening hours. Fire officials said onlookers and residents should not be alarmed if they see heavy smoke. Officials said thanks to a change in the weather, this is the perfect time to do these controlled burns, and that conditions will dry out over the weekend.