CORRALITOS — A wildfire that charred hundreds of acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains in October sparked from a hazard-reduction burn a Cal Fire inmate crew had been conducting in the area, Cal Fire officials confirmed Wednesday.
The Loma Fire started Oct. 25 and burned 485 acres along the Santa Cruz-Santa Clara county line.
Even before the blaze was controlled, a Cal Fire commander said that a brush-thinning project conducted by an inmate work crew that he was supervising along Summit Road in rural Santa Cruz County could have caused the wildfire.
Wednesday, Cal Fire officials announced that a hot ember blew out of the project and ignited nearby vegetation, starting the wildfire.
“We know there was speculation on our part,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said, “... but we had to look at the big picture.”
The blaze destroyed or damaged a mobile home, four recreational vehicles, seven outbuildings and one vehicle, and cost $4 million to control.
The seven-month probe ruled out all other causes, such as lightning or a smoldering cigarette, before settling on the inmate crew's work in the area.
“We wanted to make sure we did a thorough investigation,” Berlant said. “It's really our job to do due diligence when we investigate a fire.”
Frank Deto, whose trailer was destroyed by the fire, said Wednesday that Cal Fire's conclusion “was obvious to me.”
Deto, 46, still lives on the mountain, but said he suffers flashbacks from driving his daughter, now 9, through flames to safety when the fire broke out. He said he is struggling to get by and the prolonged investigation frustrated him.
“In the meantime, my life is still totally destroyed and it's very difficult,” said Deto, who has not been compensated by the state for what he lost in the Loma Fire.
Cal Fire forwarded the investigation results to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office this month to decide if anyone will face charges for causing the wildfire, according to Berlant.
“Even though we've been able to determine the actual cause of the fire the circumstances leading up to it remain under investigation,” Berlant said.
A spokesman from the D.A.'s Office did not return calls Wednesday.
The supervisor, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Darrell Wolf of the agency's Santa Clara unit, still works for Cal Fire, Berlant said Wednesday.
Wolf was in charge of the thinning project, which occurred nine days before the Loma Fire erupted. High winds fanned the embers — which came from one of the at least 30 piles of dead brush and other vegetation near the intersection of Loma Chiquita and Mount Madonna roads — and created a fire storm that tore through grass- and chaparral forest-covered hillsides early one Sunday.
The brush piles, some 4 feet high, burned as recently as four days before the wildfire ignited. A Cal Fire engine had been stationed on Loma Chiquita Road, a one-lane gravel route that veers off Summit Road and into Santa Clara County, each day to douse the controlled burns with water.
At the time, Deto said he had seen embers glowing from unattended brush piles on the hillside during the early-morning hours days before Loma Fire broke out. And even while the Loma Fire was still burning, Wolf acknowledged that some of the embers may not have been extinguished and potentially could have started the wildfire.
“We are reviewing our operating procedures for hazard projects like this one,” Berlant said, adding that Cal Fire also was conducting an internal investigation into the Loma Fire.
Berlant did not know Wednesday if Cal Fire crews had been blamed for causing wildfires in the past.
The Loma Fire burned not far from where Summit Fire scorched 4,270 acres and destroyed dozens of homes in May 2008.
The Summit Fire was traced back to a land-clearing project overseen by Los Gatos contractor Channing Verden. He was arrested and charged with one count of causing a fire that caused an inhabited structure or property to burn. He faces seven years in prison if convicted.
Source: Santa Cruz Sentinel - Article Link