Santa Cruz Mountains resident breathes sigh of relief

Capt. Jason Falarski, of the Santa County Fire Dept., walks through the smoke created by the Summit fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains west of Gilroy, Calif., Friday, May 23, 2008. Calmer winds and heavy fog brought some much-needed relief Friday morning to

Billy Russell went to bed this morning after breathing a sigh of
relief that his home hadn’t burned in the wildfire that has claimed
3,100 acres of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Also with this story: photo gallery of the fire, and an
interactive map.
Billy Russell went to bed this morning after breathing a sigh of relief that his home hadn’t burned in the wildfire that has claimed 3,100 acres of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Russell just finished building his new home among beautiful redwood trees last week. He and his wife, who is five months pregnant with their first child, planned to move into their new home in a few weeks. His plans were apparently dashed when he woke up Thursday morning to the jangle of the telephone. As a Pacific Gas and Electric employee, he worked through the previous night, cutting down power lines tangled by the wind. After friends alerted him that the mountains surrounding his home were burning, he sped up Summit Road to save his months of labor.

As clouds of smoke enveloped his home Thursday afternoon, he started to loose hope it would be there when the smoke cleared. He waited quietly with his hands in his pockets when a wall of gray swirled around his home.

Finally, the smoke receded and officials told Russell that his house remained untouched. The 26-year-old will be a new father soon and his plans to move his young family into the new house will proceed as planned, he said.

“I can go to sleep happy,” he said.

Firefighters worked through the night to ensure that people like Russell would still have a home once the smoke cleared.

The Summit Fire broke out at 5:30 a.m. in the woods along Summit Road and has burned 3,100 acres. It is 30 percent contained as of Friday afternoon. So far, it has destroyed 10 homes and about 20 outbuildings. About 1,400 residents remain under evacuation orders – more than 300 of them mandatory – while more than 1,100 firefighters and a swarm of tanker planes and helicopters continue dousing the area, said Joe Waterman, an incident commander with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Cpt. Phil Smith, 44, of the Alameda County Fire Department, and his crew spent last night camped out in the mountains near the Kim-Son Zen Buddhist Temple on Summit Road.

“We slept right there in the dirt,” he said. “But the residents took good care of us. They were very cordial.”

When they woke up this morning, cups of coffee were passed around, a welcome gesture after a sleepless night, he said. His crew’s job was to prepare various structures for the flames. After removing combustibles, clearing away dry brush and laying down hoses, all they had to do was sit and wait. With a shift in the winds and the dense fog that slowly crept toward the coast and settled over the mountains, the conditions turned. The mild conditions that rolled in this morning were a stark change from Thursday’s gale force winds that whipped the fire into a frenzy.

“The fog came in and kept it down,” Smith said.

Hungry and tired, his crew jumped off their trucks, headed toward the tents sent up at Christmas Hill Park. That’s where they’ll rest for 24 hours, until it’s their turn to head back up the mountain.

A young firefighter from Fremont spent the night fighting the fire and was looking forward for a little relief.

“I’m ready to get some food!” he said, making a beeline to the tents.

“We have very brave and talented firefighters here in California,” said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made a stop in Gilroy to address the media and visit with the firefighters. He declared a state of emergency in Santa Cruz County, allowing access to state funds for the effort. “We have the most talented, the best trained, the most courageous, the best equipped, the most selfless firefighters in the world.”

Gilroy Fire Chief Dale Foster hadn’t seen his team since they trucked out Thursday morning. For all he knows, they’re scattered throughout the mountains, doing their part to tame the flames.

“Oh I’m sure they’re doing fine,” Foster said. “They’re in good hands. No news is good news.”

Like firefighters from all over the state, Gilroy’s team had to make critical decisions when the flames blew their way. They had to determine which homes were salvageable and which might succumb to the flames no matter how hard they worked.

They start by clearing a distance of about 100 feet from the structure and removing overhanging branches, Foster said.

“Most people that live up there want to be in the trees,” he said. “Trimming and clearing makes a tremendous difference.”

But even the preventative measures were no match for the intense heat and whipping winds that engulfed the summit.

“You can see crazy things happen in a fire,” Foster said. He recalled times when houses right in the fire’s path escaped barely touched while others weren’t so lucky.

“Mother Nature can be very fickle,” he said.

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