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October 3, 2023

Weather gives firefighters a break; CZU Complex fires 5% contained

SANTA CRUZ MOUNTAINS—Mother Nature is lending a hand in the fight against the CZU August Lightning Complex fires in the Santa Cruz mountains.

Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Mark Brunton said a much welcomed marine layer wandered into the Central Coast as the weekend got underway, ushering in cooler conditions. Additionally, winds were almost entirely absent, giving fire crews an overdue break in combating the 67,000-acre blaze.

Thus far 115 structures have been burned, multiple roads remain closed and around 65,000 people are under evacuation between La Honda, Davenport, the UC Santa Cruz campus and along Highway 9 between Santa Cruz and the Summit area.

The scattered fires are 5% contained, Brunton said.  

However, Cal Fire officials said it was a good day for fire fighting forces, mainly in trying to extinguish hotspots. Officials said they are “looking for an increase in containment” in the morning, but are also expecting an increase in burned acreage.

Brunton said crews established a control line just above the UC Santa Cruz campus and that the fire has not made it into Felton.   

“Though it is very smoky, most of the fire is hung up on the ridgetop and not advancing at the same pace it was in the last few days,” Brunton said.

On Empire Grade in Bonny Doon no structural loss was reported Saturday. 

“The lack of wind really gave us an advantage,” Brunton said.

Smoke continues to make fighting the fires from the air difficult. Brunton said six helicopters have been able to make numerous water drops into hotspots but the more effective air tankers have not been able to fight the fire due to thick smoke and unsafe conditions.

Cal Fire officials said they are keeping a careful eye over the next 48 hours for possible thunderstorms that could haul dry lightning into the picture, the very culprit that triggered the week-old CZU fires. That means officials are about to issue a Red Flag warning for sections of the CZU Complex fires. Cal Fire Unit Chief Ian Larkin said winds as high as 50 mph are expected over the next two days.

Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox said that around 1,157 firefighters are battling the blaze.

More than 560 fires have sparked in California, charring close to a million acres—an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. That includes the SCU Complex fires that have burned 290,000-plus acres in neighboring Santa Clara County. Just south in Monterey County, the River and Carmel fires have ripped through nearly 50,000 acres combined. Officials say there are around 14,000 firefighters busy with the fires around California. Nearly 140,000 people are in evacuation and more than 500 structures have been destroyed.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a press conference Friday that fire crews were on their way from Washington, Orgon, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. Newsom has also asked for mutual aid from Canada and Australia. The governor made a visit to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville Friday where a huge evacuation center has opened. More than 500 horses—more than people—are reportedly being housed there.

Sprinkled around Santa Cruz County, at various motels and the massive Scotts Valley staging area, are engines and trucks from places such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Bruno and San Mateo. 

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark advised people to not return to evacuation zones for a host of safety reasons, including downed power lines and trees and the outbreak of new hotspots.

“It’s too dangerous to get back to your home,” he said. 

Clark mentioned a new web address for evacuation information:

Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.

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