On Monday, Aug. 19, firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, alongside those from Felton Fire Protection District and Bonny Doon Volunteer Fire and Rescue, responded to a quarter-acre timber fire on Felton Empire Road.
Although the fire was contained in an hour — and under control within two — it marked the latest in what has been a string of suspicious small blazes in the San Lorenzo Valley in recent weeks.
“We’ve had 17 fires since the beginning of May,” said Cal Fire Division Chief Rich Sampson, adding that nearly all the fires had occurred in the areas of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, UC Santa Cruz property, Roaring Camp, and Fall Creek.
“They’re usually in rough sections of the park, pretty steep,” he said. “(The fires occurred) in a short period of time and there are similarities.”
Sampson said that while several of the fires appeared to have been started accidentally by illegal campfires, several others remain under investigation — and arson had not been ruled out.
“When we come to a fire, we come with an open mind,” Sampson said.
He said that the abnormally dry conditions contributed to the fires, and explained that in a year with normal rainfall, the shade and dampness of the forest would likely have kept the fires from spreading as they did.
“In a normal year, we probably would have the same number of starts, (but) they would’ve gone out before they got bigger than 6 inches,” Sampson said. “Normally, it’s so foggy and damp that it rarely starts a fire.”
Those fires still under investigation come in the wake of the four small blazes in early July in Henry Cowell. A suspect, 35-year-old Osman Chaudhry, was arrested July 11 on arson charges.
None of the fires have been bigger than a quarter-acre, Sampson said, due largely to community vigilance, quick reporting, and fire crews’ rapid response time.
“We’re usually able to get to them fairly quickly,” he said.
Mike McMenamy, public safety superintendent of the Santa Cruz District of the California State Parks system, said that park rangers are “on heightened alert.”
“We’ve certainly done what we can patrolwise to be out there,” he said. “It’s a heavily wooded area — you can get 50 feet or less off the path and people can’t see you.”
McMenamy said that illegal campsites — often occupied by homeless — are of major concern, and are often the sources of campfire-sparked wildfires.
In addition to daily foot patrols, he said that during the parks’ designated “red flag” days, campfires are not allowed — even in the permitted campgrounds.
Cal Fire advised residents to:
n Be extra vigilant to watch out for fires where they shouldn’t occur. Residents should immediately call 911 to report these fires.
n Report anything unusual such as illegal campsites in the park, individuals starting fires or acting suspiciously. The public is encouraged to contact a ranger, or go to any entrance kiosk at the park if they see anything unusual in the park.
Anyone having information about a possible arson fire or with additional information about how the fires started should call the Cal Fire Arson Tip Line at 800-468-4408.
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