With California firefighters strapped for resources, residents have organized to put out flames themselves in a large swath of land burning south of San Francisco, defending their homes despite orders to evacuate and pleas by officials to get out of danger.
They are going in despite California’s firefighting agency repeatedly warning people that it’s not safe and actually illegal to go into evacuated areas, and they can hinder official efforts to stop the flames. The former head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said the effort near a cluster of wildfires around the city of Santa Cruz is larger and more organized than he recalls in previous blazes.
“People are frustrated with the lack of resources available. People are always going to try to sneak back in, but it sounds like this is growing to a new level,” said Ken Pimlott, who retired as director of the Cal Fire in 2018. “I haven’t seen people re-engage to this scale, particularly with the level of organization.”
The group of wildfires near Santa Cruz has burned 125 square miles (324 square kilometers) and destroyed more than 500 buildings. While those fires are 20% contained, firefighters have been pushed to the breaking point since lightning ignited more than 500 blazes in one night last week, most of them in the central and northern parts of the state.
In Boulder Creek, a community at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains near a state park filled with towering redwoods, some people call the group of residents fighting the flames the “Boulder Creek Boys.” They say the group, which includes former volunteer firefighters, have been protecting homes and extinguishing blazes behind fire lines for over a week, at times using nothing but dirt and garden hoses.
About 10 miles (16 kilometers) north of Santa Cruz, crews of civilians stayed back to protect homes in the tiny community of Bonny Doon that they believed firefighters were too strapped to protect, patrolling neighborhoods through the night in shifts. Brothers Robert and Jesse Katz even brought in their own firetruck, fighting alongside official crews.
Jaimi Jansen, 38, has returned to the area multiple times since she was ordered to evacuate early last week. She says she helps defend the community from fires and resupplies neighbors with water, generators, gasoline, shovels and chicken feed.
“We got a gas-operated pump, like the kind you operate to drain a pool,” said Jansen, who has no professional firefighting experience. “One end goes into a well or pool, and we used that to put out spot fires.”
Jansen said she’s resourceful and has learned from others, including a relative and neighbor who have been firefighters. At one home, she sprayed a garden hose while a team of neighbors used a tractor to clear trees and create a fire barrier.
Cal Fire Deputy Director Daniel Berlant said he’s not heard of residents organizing to the extent civilian groups are now in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But he said it’s always problematic for residents to stay or reenter evacuation zones, and sometimes they need to be rescued by official crews.
“Our firefighters have equipment, communication and decades of experience, which allow us to battle dangerous fires,” Berlant said. “We absolutely stress that everyone needs to evacuate early. These efforts, while well-intentioned, absolutely slow us down.”
He said it can also cause problems for firefighters when civilians compete for roads and water pressure.
Gregg Schalaman, 58, of Boulder Creek, did not initially evacuate, instead driving around his neighborhood looking for spot fires, then alerting Cal Fire crews or calling 911.
“I was able to point out locations they were not able to regularly check on,” he said, noting that while fire officials were generally responsive, they can only do so much.
Schalaman also defended his own home and neighbors’ properties using a hose and a few buckets of water from a nearby hot tub, at one point extinguishing a spot fire on a hillside near a house that had flared up.
“It was not entirely a smart thing to do, honestly,” Schalaman said. “But I was there and thought I could throw a few buckets on it. It was sheer luck that there was water at that house.”
Cal Fire officials could not say what effect civilians have had on halting fires and destruction. Evacuated areas around Santa Cruz have faced problems with looting, and authorities say that while they’re focusing on stopping looters, not amateur firefighters, some people have been arrested for entering evacuation zones.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has arrested five people so far on suspicion of burglary and urges people to stay away from the evacuation zone to prevent looting, spokeswoman Ashley Keehn said. Six others have been arrested for entering a closed disaster area, but Keehn couldn’t specify how many were residents fighting fires or resupplying those that were.
Kevin, a resident who only wanted his first name used because he feared retaliation, said his crew of residents patrols in teams around the clock, and “so far we have not lost any homes.”
“I can confidently say that if we weren’t here, we would have. We have put out multiple fires that could have gotten out of control,” Kevin said.
Fassett is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.