Hundreds of people evacuated from their homes were anxiously waiting Friday to be let back into their neighborhoods while frustrated firefighters battled a fast-moving wildfire burning in a northern California mountain range.
About 1,400 homes had been evacuated — 336 of them via mandatory orders — as the fire continued to grow despite more than 65 engines, 500 firefighters and a swarm of tanker planes and helicopters dousing the area. Some residents were taken to an evacuation center set up by the Red Cross in Watsonville.
By Friday morning, fire officials said the blaze was 20 percent contained, and 500 more firefighters were joining the front. It had already charred at least 12 structures and more than 4 square miles.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared a state of emergency for Santa Cruz County. No injuries have been reported.
The fire is in a mountain range that separates Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties, a rural area about 15 miles south of San Jose that is dotted with homes.
Officials said that of the 12 structures destroyed, at least two were homes. Three schools in the area closed because of the fire, officials said.
Heavy brush and timber and winds gusting up to 50 mph were complicating efforts to fight the blaze, and officials hoped lighter winds Friday would aid firefighting efforts. Still, officials estimated the fire would burn more than 15 square miles before being contained.
“The fuels are very heavy and dry from a pretty mild winter. With that wind added in as a factor, it’s a pretty good recipe for fire,” said Battalion Chief Mike Marcucci.
Officials said the cause of the fire was under investigation.
‘Gonna go up like a torch’
Rebecca Henson, 45, was woken up by a neighbor to smoke and ash blanketing her wood cabin in Corralitos. She quickly evacuated with her dog, resigning herself to the possibility of her home burning after they left.
“That thing’s gonna go up like a torch — it’s got wood floors, wood ceilings, everything,” Henson said as she gathered with about 75 other evacuees at a central market in another part of town. “There wasn’t an official evacuation, but we’re mountain folks and we’re pretty used to independent living. So it didn’t take too much common sense to realize this thing is close, we gotta go.”
The blaze also was swirling around Maymens Flat, a tiny community of about seven homes that overlooks the Pacific Ocean and the city of Santa Cruz.
Ian McClelland, 50, who has lived there since 1987 on his 23-acre ranch, woke up Thursday morning to an orange glow on the hillside, and he immediately let his two horses free so they would have a better chance at surviving.
“There was not an opportunity to do anything,” McClelland said. “There was no opportunity to put them in a trailer. So I just let them loose. They had a good chance that way.”
When he returned to his property for a few minutes, nothing was left except the concrete foundations. Two of his ten dogs also died in the blaze.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” McClelland said, his voice shaky.
Forced to start over
Kenneth Kim, 66, stood on a ridge overlooking Maymens Flat, and peered through binoculars to see how his house was faring against the flames.
Kim initially seemed optimistic. But then the smoke cleared, giving him a better view: Smoke was coming from his home of 20 years.
“Oh, it’s gone. It’s smoldering,” Kim said. “I feel very scared, mad and ... to start all over, I don’t know how.”