Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark speaks at a briefing Sunday with Cal Fire. (Examiner screenshot)

Fires kill 1 in Santa Cruz County, others reported missing

One person has died in the fires burning in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, Cal Fire officials said Sunday evening.

The CZU Lightning Complex Fires in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, which have been burning in heavily wooded areas for a week, had grown to 74,000 acres and were 8 percent contained as of Sunday evening.

Today’s civilian death was the first to be reported for this fire, which has destroyed more than 160 structures, more than 130 of which were homes.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chris Clark said at a briefing Sunday that the body of a 70-year-old man who had been reported missing was recovered from the end of Last Chance Road, a remote route that starts south of Ano Nuevo State Park and runs north and east toward Big Basin Redwoods State Park.

“This is the darkest day of the fire so far,” Clark said.

Clark described the road as heavily fire damaged and “impassable.”

“It actually took a helicopter to get our folks in there to recover this person,” he said.

Four other people have been reported missing and officials are attempting to locate them, Clark said.

More than 24,000 structures remained threatened Sunday night; damage inspection teams have begun to survey areas where fire activity has diminished, and the number of structures destroyed may well go up and the inspection teams make progress.

The fires in southern San Mateo County and northern Santa Cruz counties (“CZU” refers to Cal Fire’s Santa Cruz and San Mateo unit) continue to actively burn above the marine layer in the heavy timber and thick undergrowth of the coastal areas, Cal Fire says. Limited visibility due to smoke is hampering aircraft operations, Cal Fire said.

The prospects for relatively quick containment seem remote, with a Red Flag Warning remaining in effect through 5 p.m. Monday for dry lightning and gusty erratic winds that firefighters fear might help the existing fires to grow.

Several communities have been evacuated, and the total number of evacuees in both counties stood Sunday night at 77,000.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area:

— In the North Bay, the LNU Lightning Complex fires in Napa, Lake, Sonoma and Solano counties had, as of Sunday night, burned almost 348,000 acres since they started Monday night from a dry-lightning strike. The fires have resulted in four deaths so far, destroyed 871 structures, damaged 234 more and still threaten more than 30,000 other structures, Cal Fire said Sunday night.

The largest of those fires, the Hennessey Fire in Napa and Lake counties, had burned 290,102 acres as of Sunday night, with 22 percent containment. The Walbridge Fire in Sonoma County had burned 52,068 acres and was 5 percent contained as of 7 p.m. Sunday. The Meyers Fire in Sonoma County) north of Jenner was at 2,360 acres and 95 percent contained.

Many mandatory evacuations remain in place. Continued fire growth is expected throughout the night, Cal Fire said, with “extreme fire behavior” continuing to challenge firefighting efforts. Fires continue to spread in multiple directions at various places.

And weather forecasts through Tuesday offer no relief – more dry lightning and thunderstorms that could cause erratic winds, extreme fire behavior within the existing fires, are expected. And Cal Fire says the threat is ripe for new fires to start.

— In the South and East Bay, the SCU Lightning Complex fires had consumed almost 344,000 acres across parts of seven counties – Alameda, Santa Clara, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, San Benito, Merced and Contra Costa – with 10 percent containment as of 7 p.m. Sunday.

The Contra Costa fires, which burned about 1,500 acres on the east side of Mount Diablo near Brentwood, were largely out by Friday morning. But the fires in the rest of the SCU Lightning Complex fires (so named for Cal Fire’s Santa Clara unit) have picked up steam, if anything, officials said Sunday.

“This is an absolute marathon that we are embarking on, and we’ll have to set manageable paces,” said Jake Hess, a Cal Fire SCU Unit Chief, during a news conference Sunday afternoon. Neither Hess nor other firefighters at Sunday’s press conference would venture a guess as to how long it would take to put out the fires.

A series of new mandatory evacuations were issued at 3 p.m. Sunday, effective immediately, mostly in Santa Clara County. The most active areas within the SCU Lightning Complex, said Tim Ernst, a Cal Fire section chief, are the Calaveras zone in the rural areas east of Fremont and northeast of San Jose, and the southeastern areas in Stanislaus and Merced counties.

Hess and others said that saving lives is priority one at this point, though firefighters are still prepared to defend residences. Many mandatory evacuation orders are in place, as are a number of evacuation warnings.

“Please, please, look at these evacuation warnings and listen to them,” Hess said.

Firefighters are exhausted, said Jeff Veik, another Cal Fire chief. “We’re challenged for resources all over California and the western United States. We’re one team, one fight.”

— In Marin County, the Woodward Fire in Point Reyes has burned 2,487 acres and was at 5 percent containment as of Sunday evening, according to the Marin County Fire Department. Communities west of State Highway 1 and Sir Francis Drake Boulevard including Olema and Inverness are under evacuation warnings. Steep terrain and thick brush have hindered firefighters so far and strong winds are expected in the area.

Bay City News contributed to this report

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Firefighters work to contain a blaze during the CZU August Lightning Complex Fires on Friday, Aug. 21, 2020 in Ben Lomond, CA. The University of California at Santa Cruz campus and nearby towns have been under evacuation orders due to fires in the region. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

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