Prevention crews bound and determined to lessen fire danger in South Valley

Croy area resident Steve Slusser points out new growth on trees

GILROY
– The last blazing embers from South County’s largest wildfire
in a quarter century faded to piles of ash more than seven months
ago, but that sun-dried September afternoon forever changing the
lives of hundreds of local residents still remains fresh in many
minds, especially in those of local fir
efighting agency officials.
GILROY – The last blazing embers from South County’s largest wildfire in a quarter century faded to piles of ash more than seven months ago, but that sun-dried September afternoon forever changing the lives of hundreds of local residents still remains fresh in many minds, especially in those of local firefighting agency officials.

That’s why with South County’s wildfire season looming, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is set this week to begin its most intensive inspection of rural South County homes ever conducted.

The goal of the inspections will be to make sure residents living in areas susceptible to wildfires learned their lessons from last year’s Croy Fire, which burned more than 3,000 acres of the Santa Cruz Mountains, destroyed 34 homes, caused $3.5 million in property damage and cost the state $10 million to extinguish.

Beginning Thursday, a team of CDF fire inspectors will spend the next month going door-to-door to more than 500 rural South County homes throughout the Croy Fire burn area.

“We’re not here with the goal of fining people or turning them into the county if they are not in line with code,” said Chris Morgan, spokesman for the South County office of the CDF. “What we want to do is educate people so they can learn how to prevent something like this from happening again.”

In all, the CDF plans to inspect nearly 800 homes, barns, garages and shops in the rural foothills west of Gilroy and Morgan Hill, including every home along Redwood Retreat Road, between Thursday and June 15. The purpose of the inspections will be to cite and record possible fire hazards and issue costly criminal tickets if those hazards are not addressed in a timely fashion.

“I think the saying goes, ‘Once burned, twice cautious,’ ” said Steve Slusser, who along with his wife Yvonne spent 48 exhausting and unforgettable hours using their 6-gallon water pump to defend their Croy Road home from the overpowering blaze. With the help of the CDF, the Slussers managed to save their longtime home, although nearly $250,000 in smoke and fire damage forced them out of their house until last week, when they were finally able to move back.

“I think all of the neighbors are much more cautious now, and I’m sure they’ll welcome the (inspections),” Steve Slusser said. “As bad as the fire was, a lot of good has come out of this. No one died – it could’ve been a lot worse, and now we are prepared because we know this can happen to us.”

A handful of highly-trained, though non-paid, volunteer CDF inspectors will use detailed maps of South County’s rural western foothill roads to probe the fire safety code compliance of every structure in various rural neighborhoods.

Included in the inspection will be every home along the Redwood Retreat Road area west of Gilroy, Mount Madonna Road, Croy Road – where the Croy Fire began, the neighborhoods of Casa Loma and Loma Chiquita, and Summit Road between Pole Line and Loma Prieta roads.

Following the Croy Fire, many local residents, fire and county officials expressed concerns with the large number of unpermitted homes, trailers and recreational vehicles that dotted the snaking 7900 block of Croy Road where the blaze ignited. The CDF eventually cited faulty solar panel wiring for sparking the fire which marched through the mountains for six days until it was controlled, but Morgan acknowledged basic fire code negligence by area residents led to the rapid spread of fire and the destruction of many homes.

In previous years, the CDF has sent inspectors to all of the neighborhoods scheduled to be inspected this year, including Redwood Retreat Road last year, but it has never dedicated so much manpower to South County in one year, Morgan said.

Wildfire season in the area typically runs from mid-May through October, although soggy spring weather is expected to push the season back by at least three weeks this year, according to Morgan.

“Obviously with the fire last year we are much more aware of this area,” Morgan said. “That (vegetation fuel) hadn’t burned since 1923 – and there’s still a lot of areas surrounding it that have not burned. The main thing is that we just want to get everyone on the same page so it’s easier for us to work together with the residents.”

Inspectors will begin posting signs early this week in the neighborhoods scheduled to be inspected, and volunteers will create checkpoints on certain roads where they will hand out fire code checksheets to spread word of inspections, Morgan said.

During inspections volunteers will leave a completed copy of the fire code check sheet at a home’s front door and enter their copy of the sheet in a computer data base. If the home or structure on a property does not pass code, inspectors will return to meet with the owners before June 15. If upgrades haven’t been made, $100 fine for each violation will be issued, Morgan said.

Investigators will educate residents on basic fire prevention methods such as defensible space, removing old and dead vegetation from properties, trimming trees, marking water sources and making sure residential addresses are clearly labeled on the road.

Most residents are aware of the recommended measures, but even one violator in a neighborhood can cause a large area to go up in flames, Morgan said.

“Most people in violation are willing to help, it’s simply a case that they are not informed of the regulations,” Morgan said. “Providing information is how you prevent fires, save homes and save lives.”

For information about the upcoming fire inspections, call the CDF at 779-6611.

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