Residents resilient; containment expected Saturday in Croy’s
biggest fire in 80 years
By DALE RODEBAUGH, AEON HOPI SCHMOOCK, JOEL TURNER
Pinnacle Staff Writers
The return to Croy Ridge to find that the wildfire that has
charred at least 3,200 acres of forest- and brush-covered hillsides
in the Santa Cruz Mountains had spared his home was a moment to
relish for Hugh McPhee.
Residents resilient; containment expected Saturday in Croy’s biggest fire in 80 years
By DALE RODEBAUGH, AEON HOPI SCHMOOCK, JOEL TURNER
Pinnacle Staff Writers
The return to Croy Ridge to find that the wildfire that has charred at least 3,200 acres of forest- and brush-covered hillsides in the Santa Cruz Mountains had spared his home was a moment to relish for Hugh McPhee.
“I definitely gave a sigh of relief because when we left Tuesday, Suzie and I looked back and wondered if we’d ever see it again,” McPhee said Thursday.
Turning off Croy Road on the bone-jarring, one and one-half mile dirt road that leads to his three-bedroom home, McPhee found a surreal landscape.
“Our road had acted as a firebreak,” McPhee said. “On the left, everything was blackened and I could see debris and even embers. On the right, you couldn’t even tell there’d been a fire.”
McPhee’s home, a renovated guest cottage that his great-grandfather, Charles A. McPhee, had built in the mid-1800s, was on the right side of the road – in more ways than one.
The Rain Bird sprinkler that he had left spritzing his composition shake roof when he and Suzie pulled out was still doing its job. Exotic plant and shrub landscaping was intact. Stacks of oak planks sat on the deck, ready for when McPhee finds time to put a new floor in the house.
The McPhees were among the lucky residents of the heavily wooded Santa Cruz Mountains where a fire that started in a mobile home Monday afternoon north of Croy Road had consumed 3,200 acres by press time, destroyed or partially destroyed 15 houses and sent hundred of residents fleeing.
Dozens more homes were saved by firefighters from around the state, with the help of minimum-security prison inmates, who labored to cut firebreaks in an effort to steer the flames away from dwellings.
Containment expected Saturday
The fire was 30 percent contained Thursday, and fire officials expect it will be fully contained by Saturday evening, said California Department of Forestry spokeswoman Tina Rose.
While the fire continues to move south-southwest, its relentless march has slowed, Rose said. The weather, cooler temperatures and higher humidity have helped, she said.
Rose said some 1,900 firefighters are on the job, including the 1,000 inmates. Five air tankers and 13 helicopters have dumped fire retardant and water, while 171 engine companies with 48 bulldozers have fought on the ground.
“There’s a lot of history there,” said McPhee, said of the property that his great-grandfather homesteaded in the area in the mid-1800s and on which he built one of the first sawmills on the Central Coast.
McPhee and dozens of other residents of the remote canyons could only hope that their properties would be spared.
“It’s very scary. I’ve spent 25 years restoring the old guest cottage. I have all my music gear there and everything I use for teaching fly fishing,” said McPhee, assistant project supervisor for the Summer Winds Garden Center.
The McPhees didn’t evacuate their home Monday night, but only because their road was blocked by fire.
“We had all the animals, the dogs and the cats, all loaded up. When we got down there to the bottom it was burning, they had all the trucks in,” McPHee said.
“We couldn’t get out. We decided we’d just wait,” he said.
Between answering calls from concerned friends they ventured out to check on the 50-to-80-foot flames illuminating the night sky over Croy Ridge a quarter of a mile away, he could not rest.
“You could hear when a grove of pine would go up, you could hear the roar, it was amazing,” said McPhee, noting that a recent epidemic of pine pitch canker had killed many of the Monterey Pines, turning the groves into tinder.
When the intense smoke blew out late Tuesday morning it seemed like the fire had been bested. Many of the 1,250 fire crews had retreated, residents on Croy Road were being allowed back in, and much of the threatened areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains were merely smoldering.
Flares up again
But Tuesday around 2 p.m. McPhee noticed that the smoke was getting darker over Croy Ridge in the east, and pieces of ash as big as pepperoni slices were falling.
“That’s not looking too good,” said McPhee. “Let me go get Suzie. I want to go take a look up there.”
Suzie had unplugged the phone and was napping, but they were still packed for a hasty exit. Musical instruments were strapped to the truck, cat crates and blankets filled the trunk.
Half way down their dirt road they cut over to the Unity Camp, an old German summer retreat at the base of Croy Ridge. By then the fire was raging over the top of the ridge from the Eastman Canyon side. It burst in huge orange licks against the dingy slate smoke, creating a roar like the ocean. Eric McPhee, Hugh’s cousin, examined the fire through his binoculars.
“That’s not good, it’s coming down the side,” said Eric, as he assessed the reawakening blaze.
With firefighters absent from the immediate area and smoke blocking the scene from the air, Eric called 911. Hugh and Suzie quickly drove back for the horses, which they had to walk out the 1.5 miles to Croy Road.
It took 30 tense minutes to wrestle scared dogs into the truck, climb under the cabin for timid cats, and lead the horses and Puddles the goat out of the paddock. The sky was turning a dark yellow. Nobody knew how far the fire had come down Croy Ridge, but the road out would pass frighteningly close.
Near the bottom of the canyon they passed crews of firefighters establishing a base of operations to fight the fire’s newest front. A friend with a stock trailer met them at the bottom and they bolted out to safety on Croy Road.
“We had help from a lot of people,” Hugh McPhee said Thursday.
The McPhees’ entire domestic menagerie – an Arabian stallion and two mares, three cats, four dogs and the goat, which thinks it’s dog, and a rabbit – made it to safety.
“The only animals we left were the goldfish, and they made it OK too,” McPhee said.
His relief is bittersweet.
“It was a happy ending, but it’s sad, too. Friends on Redwood Retreat Road who worried about us Monday are now going through hell,” McPhee said.
As the fire spread slowly south-southwest, law enforcement recommended that residents on Redwood Retreat and Loma Chiquita roads leave their homes.
The Redwood Retreat area is steeped in history. Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, Fannie, constructed a New England colonial home there, but the Scottish author died of tuberculosis in Samoa before he could see it.
Cattle baron Henry Miller and writer Frank Norris also lived in the area.
Now it’s favored by people looking for rural seclusion and a diversion from busy Silicon Valley.
Steve and Yvonne Slusser sat on a rock on the side of a dirt road in the densely wooded area down the hill from their home. They knew the fire was heading straight for their house and had already consumed some of their neighbors’ homes, but there was nothing they could do but wait.
Their ordeal began 13½ hours earlier when the couple first noticed flames approaching their house around 4 a.m. Tuesday.
“I was on the roof spraying water on the flames while the fire licked up the side of the house,” said Steve.
While Steve was fighting the fire single-handed, the pump to the 3,000-gallon water container cut out. Luckily a CDF crew showed up and they worked together to fight the fire.
“We were three minutes from losing the house,” Steve said.
They were lucky. Some of the windows in the house blew out and it sustained water and smoke damage, but the home was still standing. Their luck seemed to be short-lived on Tuesday as fire again approached. About 50 CDF crews stood guard in the thick smoke as the fire roared downhill, scooting the edge of the house.
Steve and Yvonne managed to round up both of their dogs, one of their cats, four parrots and some other items that could fit in the two vehicles they took down the road with them.
As the helicopters thundered overhead and pieces of ash fell from the sky like snowflakes, Steve and Yvonne kept their spirits high, joking around, as they awaited the fate of their home from the fire crews that would give them updates every half hour.
“It’s either laugh or cry and there’s a lot a lot of tears up here, there’s a lot of dreams that went up in smoke,” Steve said.
At about 6:30 p.m. a fire official notified the couple that the house, which had taken Steve 11-years to build, had been spared.
Fire’s long reach
The wildfire has dropped ash across northern San Benito County and a plume of thick smoke snaked down the coastline.
On Wednesday evening, the fire hopped the eastern end of Summit Road and started spot fires in Santa Cruz County. Summit Road is the dividing line between the two counties.
Residents of Hollister got an initial smoky blast from the fire after it broke out, but coastal breezes blew most of it away. Still, until the fire is extinguished, San Benito County issued a health advisory for people with respiratory problems.
The advisory cautions children, elderly and asthmatic people to minimize outdoor activity.
The same precautionary advice was distributed Tuesday and Wednesday in Morgan Hill Unified School District. Outdoor sports practice was cancelled at Live Oak High School and Principal Rich Knapp allowed the freshman game Thursday night but was going to assess the air quality on Friday and make a decision then about the varsity home game.
Another result of the fire was the closure to the public of Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy until at least Oct. 6. The park, the site of the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival, is being used as a base camp for the 1,900 firefighters working the fire.
Those firefighters are battling tough, brushy conditions in steep canyons in an effort to preserve as much property as possible. The work is sometimes made more difficult as residents try to stick it out, or return for belongings.
“They came in yelling at us to get out, but we talked our way back in,” said Kathie Schmitt of the firefighters that surrounded her house just of the south side of Croy Road. “They just told us if the wind shifts to get the hell out.”
Schmitt stood in front of her home offering water to firefighters and fielding questions from the numerous news stations that flocked to her house as she held a book describing the history of her husbands family, which has owned the property since 1860.
Early Wednesday afternoon fire crews were able to keep the fire at bay, preventing the fire from touching the house.
“They’re being awesome, they’re saving our stuff,” Schmitt said.
Forestry officials have pinpointed the origin of the fire as a singlewide mobile home along Croy Road off Uvas Road. They still don’t know who lived there or why the fire broke out around 2:15 p.m. Monday.
The fire spread rapidly, fueled by dense brush and encouraged by hot weather and low humidity. Firefighters had to meet an added challenge Tuesday as the fire spread on two fronts, north and south from Croy Road.
Sveadal, a resort owned by the Swedish American Patriotic League, was spared, as was all but a small section of Uvas Canyon County Park. Both are reached from Croy Road.
Vacationing firefighters pitch in
Sveadal was spared thanks to the help of some off duty firefighters and police officers that happened to be vacationing in the village.
The group, consisting mainly of Oakland firefighters, had already heard about the fire from news reports when they drove down Monday afternoon to stay at a friend’s cabin. From the looks of the fire Tuesday morning they figured the impending threat would be under control by the time they got back from a round of golf at Coyote Creek Golf Course.
“We watched the smoke from the golf course and it just got bigger and bigger,” said Matthew Nichelini, an Oakland firefighter, who came down with his brother Michael, an Oakland police officer, and their father Bob, the Vallejo chief of police.
By the time the group of eight made it back to Sveadal around 3 p.m., the fire was quickly approaching the rear of the cabin, which has been in the Nichelini family for 50 years.
The group cut a fire line in the side of the hill that abuts the back of the cabin and connected a quarter-mile hose to a floating pump in the nearby stream to help douse the flames that threatened the resorts structures until CDF crews showed up.
According to Matthew the group saved the cabin.
“We were lucky we decided to come down here,” said Bob Nichelini, who was prepared from experience to evacuate the cabin if need be – he lost his home in the Oakland Hills fire.
For fire victims, the American Red Cross opened a shelter Tuesday afternoon in the Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, offering cots, food and soon, clothing.
Five families dropped in Tuesday, but no one stayed the night. Two adults spent Wednesday night there, said Red Cross employee Ivy Widman.
There have been no major fires in the Croy/Uvas area since records started being kept 80 years ago, CDF spokeswoman Rose said. Reports of early fires there would anecdotal, she said.
The Croy fire has become, however, the largest one in the Santa Cruz Mountains since July 1985 when the Lexington Hills fire charred 14,000 acres above Los Gatos. The fire, which burned for five days, destroyed a couple of dozen homes.
Some of the CDF’s air tanker fleet is unavailable because they have been sent to other fires, including a 22,000-acre fire in Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles.
The Red Cross is seeking donations to aid the fire victims. Checks may be made out to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund through the Santa Clara Valley chapter. Donor can call (408) 577-2114 or go online at www.redcross.org/ca/scv.