Crews Gaining Upper Hand in Santa Cruz Fire

     SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (CN) — Firefighters appear to have the upper hand on the Loma Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains 30 miles southwest of San Jose, California, with containment at 50 percent after destroying 12 homes and nine other buildings since Monday.
     “Today we are reinforcing the lines and really mopping up the fire,” said San Mateo/Santa Cruz Cal Fire Division Chief Angela Bernheisel.
     While some mandatory evacuation orders remain in place on the Santa Clara County side of the fire, all evacuation orders and warnings have been lifted in Santa Cruz County. On Friday, many of the narrow mountain roads were filled with PG&E crews replacing power poles, repairing lines and restoring power. People were returning to their homes to clean up and many breathed a sigh of relief.
     “It looks like this community will soon be good to go,” said David Brewster, who was picking up a 12-pack of beer and some other groceries at The Summit Shopping Center not far from the fire. “They (Cal Fire air tankers) were constantly dive-bombing over my house for the first couple of days. It was driving me crazy.”
     Brewster, who lives just a few miles from the fire, said he wasn’t given an order to evacuate, but many of his friends and neighbors did.
     “I’m glad it will soon be over and life can get back to normal up here,” he said.
     Bernheisel said the fire has scorched 4,345 acres, and while full containment is expected by Monday there is still plenty of work to do.
     “We still have some more containment to work on and we will have some winds this afternoon to deal with,” she said. “The winds that are coming in are coming from a different direction, the northwest, where we’d been having more westerly, offshore winds. And so, a change in direction will kick up new sparks in the area that burned where maybe there is more stuff to burn, and it puts different pressures on the fire lines that weren’t there before.”
     The terrain is often steep and mostly filled with dry brush. But some of the vegetation firefighters have encountered isn’t so dry, Bernheisel said.
     “There’s a lot of marijuana up there – a lot. And is very well irrigated,” she said. “It’s all over the place. It doesn’t burn much and a lot of it is in greenhouses. We are up there to protect people’s homes, and that’s what we’re doing. If there is marijuana growing, it’s not really our concern; it’s not something we specifically try to protect, but a lot of times it survives just fine on its own.”
     Bernheisel said she wasn’t certain whether it was being legally grown or not.
     “That’s not my area, but there’s a lot up there. I know that.”
     The blaze started as a house fire, the cause of which is still under investigation. Bernheisel said that most residents seem less concerned about why it started than when it will be over.
           “The most pressing question people have is when they can go back home. And a lot of that just depends on how much we can get done in the next couple of days and make it safe for people to go back,” Bernheisel said. “Right now, PG&E is working to restore power. They are all along the roads; they have heavy equipment and all kinds of apparatus on the roads. We are also using those roads, so we’d like people to stay off.”
     The community has seen several major fires in the past 15 years. In 2002, the Croy Fire burned more than 3,000 acres and destroyed 31 homes and 15 other buildings. In 2008, the Summit Fire burned 34 homes, mostly in Santa Cruz County in the hills just above Corralitos. And in 2009, the first Loma Fire scorched 485 acres and destroyed three buildings.
     On Friday, more than half the homes had signs posted in front thanking the firefighters for their effort in this latest blaze.
     We really appreciate them up here, everyone does,” resident Sheryl McNamara said as she pounded her own sign in.
     Top photo: A hillside in the Santa Cruz Mountains is mostly burned, but winds coming from a new direction today could help ignite the trees and brush that remain.
     Lower photo: McNamara pounds a sign into the ground along Summit Road thanking firefighters.

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