SCOTTS VALLEY (CBS SF) — The search for two missing Santa Cruz County residents intensified Thursday as firefighters battled the massive CZU Lightning Complex fire that had grown to 81,333 acres in the timber-covered Santa Cruz Mountains overnight, was 21 percent contained and had destroyed at least 646 homes and buildings in two counties.
Of those burned structures, Cal Fire, said the vast majority were in Santa Cruz County where the count was expected to increase from the Thursday morning total of 635 as damage assessment teams gained greater access the burn area. Officials said damage inspection was about 60% complete.
While the damage assessment teams were canvasing neighborhood in one area of the fire, San Mateo County officials announced that most residents will be able to return to the homes along the coast.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Deputy Chief Chris Clark said deputies have been able to locate 70-year-old Henry Reinke, one of three men missing in the blaze. The search continued for 21-year-old Shane Smith and 37-year-old Micah Szoke.
Two people have died in the burn area since the fires began last week — Davenport area resident 73-year-old Tad Jones and a 63-year-old Felton woman whose identity has not been released.
Cal Fire CZU operations chief Mark Bruton said fire crews — that now numbered nearly 2,000 firefighters — were able to use the increased containment to gain better access to the active blaze.
“We have been able to get deeper into the fire, extinguish fire around homes, creating a more safe environment,” he said at the Thursday morning fire briefing.
But weather did present a challenge until late Wednesday. A controlled burn between Felton and Ben Lomond was delayed until later in the day as was help from air support.
“We didn’t get any reconnaissance flights in and it wasn’t until very late in the day that we got any water-dropping flights in,” he said. “We didn’t have as much success from the air yesterday.”
CZU LIGHTNING COMPLEX FIRES
- Evacuation Info, Burn Zone Map, Fast Facts
- Evacuation Map
- Google Map of Fire Area
- Wildfire Shelter Map, Information
Still, Bruton said, progress was made.
The fire was pretty much extinguished along the San Mateo County coast with the town of Davenport preparing to be repopulated. Road crews were working hard to clear debris from the road into Boony Doon, where several homes burned at the height of the firefight.
A line along the southern end of the blaze was well established, allowing the UC Santa Cruz campus to be repopulated. But, Bruton said, that line will face a test with the changing wind conditions expected over the weekend.
“It will be getting warmer, drier and we will see a lot of north wind pushing on that line,” he told reporters. “It will give us a good wind test to validate that line and give us confidence that it will hold.”
Cal Fire Incident Commander Billy See said a lot of work will be done over the next 48 hours to determine a re-population plan.
“Obviously, one week ago we started a large evacuation process and moved several thousand residents out of the area for their safety and the safety of our fire crews,” See told reporters Thursday. “Over the course of the next 48 hours, we are going to be looking to repopulate different areas in and around the fire…It needs to be a coordinated and methodical process.”
Meanwhile, the San Jose Mercury News reported Thursday that the fire had turned the beloved Little Basin campground into piles of ash, burned timber and melted metal.
The 535-acre property eight miles east of Boulder Creek near Big Basin Redwoods State Park was purchased by Hewlett Packard co-founders William Hewlett and David Packard in 1963 as a retreat for their employees.
“It was a beautiful setting in the redwoods, cool and restful. The kids would hunt for pennies in a big pile of sawdust for fun,” Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Aquarium, told the paper. “My biggest memory was a huge stand of native Western Azaleas blooming in the picnic area when we went up there. The aroma knocked you out.”
Santa Cruz County officials have launched a damage map to show what homes and neighborhoods have been damaged by the blaze.