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Santa Cruz County Hams Called to Assist During Wildfires

10/28/2009

Almost 20 years to the day since the Loma Prieta Earthquake shook California's Bay Area, a wildfire was burning through Santa Cruz County (approximately 75 miles south of San Francisco) just miles from the epicenter of the quake that delayed the 1989 World Series. Just as Amateur Radio operators responded to calls for assistance for the earthquake, 20 years later on October 25, they responded when needed for a 485 acre wildfire.

According to Santa Cruz County ARES® Public Information Officer Bil Conklin, AF6OH, the Santa Cruz County Emergency Operations Center activated Santa Cruz County ARES® to assist with communications support. From 9 AM-2 PM, ARES® team members were in the EOC. They also activated a Loma Prieta ARES® Resource and Information Net on the AE6KE 146.835 repeater.

Just days before the fire began, the area had received more than 10 inches of rain, but it wasn't enough to keep the fire at bay. Early in the morning on October 25, fire crews were dispatched to the summit area of the Santa Cruz Mountains to respond to a wildfire of unknown origin. Lasting for two days, the Loma Fire burned in the same region as the devastating 2008 Summit Fire that charred 4200 acres and destroyed 63 homes and 69 outbuildings. The Summit Fire burned for five days and caused $14.85 million in damage. Cal Fire estimates the cost of battling this fire to be in the neighborhood of $2.5 million.

Conklin told the ARRL that high winds prevented firefighters from using an aerial attack to combat the blaze that began at 3 AM. "Air fire crews had to stand down while they waiting for lower winds," he said. "Firefighters were forced to use hand crews to battle the blaze with lateral hose lays and water tankers supplying water."

Now completely contained, the Loma Fire destroyed one trailer and two outbuildings; four people were injured, including two firefighters. The cause is under investigation, but Battalion Chief Jim Crawford of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) told The Santa Cruz Sentinel that investigators will focus on the activity of inmate crews from the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp who had been working in the fire area as recently as October 23.

Crawford told the newspaper that the heavy rains did not soak trees and brush to the core, but rather drenched the leaves. During the 10 sunny days between the rains and the fire, the foliage dried and strong winds and low humidity made conditions more fire-prone. While the wind died down in mid-afternoon, it kicked up again in late afternoon. "They may have gotten rained on, but the inside part didn't get real moist," he said. "It will take a sustained winter season of rain for large trees and bushes to fully absorb moisture."

The local newspaper, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, invited readers to watch a video of the fire shot by Dan Dawson, KI6ESH.



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