Fire out, crews packing up

34 homes destroyed, 42 saved in biggest Croy-area fire in 80
years
A faulty solar panel connection has been identified as the
source of the spark that touched off a wildfire Sept. 23 that
burned 3,127 acres and destroyed 34 dwellings in the Santa Cruz
Mountains southwest of Morgan Hill.
34 homes destroyed, 42 saved in biggest Croy-area fire in 80 years

A faulty solar panel connection has been identified as the source of the spark that touched off a wildfire Sept. 23 that burned 3,127 acres and destroyed 34 dwellings in the Santa Cruz Mountains southwest of Morgan Hill.

The cost of fighting the fire now stands at $8.5 million, with structural damage estimated at $4.4 million, CDF spokesman Jim Dethlefson said Wednesday.

Investigators focused on the solar panel in a single-wide mobile home off Croy Road as the potential cause of the blaze about the time they were discarding the possibility that the fire was caused by an explosion in a clandestine laboratory that produced methamphetamines.

They also eliminated arson as cause of the fire, which spread quickly in the dry timber and brush that thickly cover the hillsides and valleys. The fire, battled by 2,100 firefighters, including almost 1,000 minimum-security inmates from California prisons, was contained Saturday evening.

Crews cut 14 miles of fire line to get the fast traveling fire in check, Dethlefson said.

Now, hectic has turned to humdrum, said Dethlefson, an unemployed software quality engineer from San Jose temporarily on the CDF payroll as an information specialist.

“We’re breaking camp at Christmas Hill Park today and we’ll be gone by Friday,” Dethlefson said Wednesday of the base camp where firefighters going on duty and returning from fire lines ate and slept. “On scene, we’re still mopping up 500 feet from the fire line, which is about 200 feet more than usual. We’re being extra cautious because of wind,” Dethlefson said.

Also, Dethlefson said, hand crews and bulldozer operators are rehabilitating roads and fire breaks to prevent erosion. They are restoring the contours of safety islands – patches of cleared terrain where firefighters can retreat if threatened by fire – and creating channels to funnel water off roads instead of down roads.

The crews also are laying down straw, which is designed to retain water and prevent runoff, Dethlefson said.

Since all the burned land is held privately, restoration measures will be left to the owners, Dethlefson said. There are a number of organizations and agencies that can help owners chart a course of action, he said.

In a nutshell, Dethlefson said: In addition to the 34 destroyed residences, four dwellings were damaged, two heavily. Sixty-five residences were saved and nine firefighters were injured. At the peak of the fire, 20 bulldozers, six air tankers and as many helicopters were aiding the ground crews.

Dethlefson, who has been living in a Morgan Hill motel since the fire broke out Sept. 23, is looking forward to going home. He has been home only twice, for 15 minutes each time, since arriving for fire duty.

The solar panel malfunction occurred in a number of indoor parts of the solar electrical system used to power the mobile home. The parts included a junction box, battery pack and breaker panel.

Investigators can’t say, however, exactly what went wrong in the electrical system, which had been in place for a number of years.

The news about the solar panel’s role in the fire brought a quick response from the CEO of a 28-year-old Sunnyvale solar power company.

In a press release, Michael Clifton of MC Solar Engineering, said “We feel it is important to convey the safety inherent in proper wiring.”

“Properly installed solar systems meet all current building and electrical codes, as well as additional stringent solar codes,” Clifton said. “As in all household electrical wiring, photovoltaic solar systems improperly assembled and not inspected by building and electrical inspectors can be hazardous.”

A properly installed solar system, Clifton said, contains devices to prevent fires in the panel itself as well as disconnect the system before a short circuit can cause damage.

Clifton said his firm has installed more than 4,000 solar panels without any backfires.

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