With stretched crews, homeowners join California firefight

BONNY DOON, Calif. (AP) — As wildfires rage throughout California turning forests and homes into kindling, some firefighters are badly short-staffed, and some residents are taking matters into their own hands.

In the Santa Cruz mountains south of San Francisco, about 1,000 firefighters are battling a fire over 78 square miles — 10 times the size they typically would cover, said Dan Olsen, a spokesman for the state fire agency, Cal Fire.

“Put it this way: from an emergency response standpoint, we’re stretched,” he said.

More than 500 fires were burning around the state and some exploded in size Friday to be among the largest in California history.

Reinforcements were arriving from 10 states to bolster weary crews but Gov. Gavin Newsom said there still weren’t enough people and aircraft.

Brothers Robert and Jesse Katz, who have a ranch in Morgan Hill, headed into the Santa Cruz mountains with their own fire truck. On Friday they worked side-by-side with a professional local crew, hosing down a burning redwood next to a popular hiking trail in Henry Cowell State Park.

“The more civilians can do to pitch in, it really will take the burden off of them and it really can make the difference between saving a house or a property or a home, and finding ashes,” Robert Katz said.

Katz said they’re working closely with crews.

“You develop relationships with the people who are actually working the fire, and once you do that you can really work as a great team,” Katz said. “If we’re doing structure protection, they can take the lead and we can do mop up behind them. It frees them up to do areas of firefighting that otherwise would tie them up.”

But Cal Fire’s Olsen said civilians can put firefighters in danger.

“They don’t have the training, the experience and the education we have about staying safe in fires,” he said.

On Thursday night, crews had to stop fighting fires to rescue people who had become stuck when fire reached their doorstep, he said.

But Peter Koleckai credits a neighbor, not firefighters, with saving his home.

Off a narrow road a mile from the Katzes, Koleckai wiped tears from his eyes after days of evacuating and re-evacuating his family as one community after another became endangered.

Within a few blocks, more than a dozen homes lay in ruins, most still smoldering. Summer gardens were roasted, hulls of cars were smoking, and in many homes the only recognizable feature was the chimney.

Koleckai said he had been hosing his property, filming devastation and sharing it with neighbors.

“We were here at about 3 o’clock in the morning and the fire department just left. They just left,” he said.

Koleckai said he ran to a firefighter and told him a brush fire was erupting next to a house.

“They never went up there and it engulfed the whole house, took the house out,” he said.

Koleckai said a neighbor with a high pressure hose, firefighting equipment and a generator saved his home.

Nearby, brothers Jeremy and Justin Cote were guarding their parent’s home Friday in Bonny Doon, a forested community near Santa Cruz.

“We got water, we got pumps, we got generators,” said Jeremy Cote, “but it’s gnarly.”

“We’re very confused,” said Justin Cote, pulling up on a small motorcycle. “There’s a fire burning here. Where is everyone? Where are they? I know they need to fight other fires, but what about this one?”

Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Smith said typically a wildfire of the size burning through the region would have 10 or even 20 times as many firefighters.

“We are doing absolutely everything we can,” he said.

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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