A volunteer group of amateur firefighters is taking it upon themselves to try to save homes in and around Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz County, as the state's firefighting resources are stretched thin with too many fires to battle.
70-year-old Mike Zucker is one of about 50 Bonny Doon residents who decided to stick around and fight the fire themselves, despite not having the sort of equipment and gear that real firefighters have. As he tells the LA Times this week, "We’ve been battling it, kind of a ragtag outfit."
The CZU Lightning Complex, which began last Sunday, has destroyed at least 330 homes and other buildings, though damage assessments haven't been completed. It's not yet known how many homes have burned in Bonny Doon, but the amateur crew is believed to have saved a considerable number through their efforts.
"They basically created their own small fire department," says Zucker's nephew Joel Kauffman, speaking to the LA Times. "They’ve got Google Docs, they’re paying attention to weather forecasts and exit routes — they’re extremely well organized. If they hadn’t done this, countless more homes would have burned."
ABC 7 spoke to one of what they say are several groups doing their own firefighting in the area, calling themselves Rescue 1. They reportedly have their own water tanks, bulldozers, chainsaws, and more.
"We know the terrain, we know where to find the water, we have the resources and we have a small group of manpower that that can get a lot of work done," says one of the crew, Cuyler Ruskin, who drove in from his current home in Reno to defend his hometown from flames. "There are no fire trucks. No one's helping us, and we refuse to let people's houses burned to the ground," he tells ABC 7.
Volunteer fire departments are nothing new, and this is a community that considers itself prepared for fire — but it doesn't sound like anyone has gotten proper training or protective gear. And Cal Fire is rightfully worried that they will have rescue people who don't evacuate and then get stuck, surrounded by fire.
Cal Fire Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox tells ABC 7, "Any sort of organization that may impede with firefighting operations is not only potentially harmful for them, but it's potentially harmful for our firefighters as well."
Todd Ellis, a captain with Ben Lomond’s fire district, tells the LA Times that the amateur brigade also makes things confusing as firefighters are now on the lookout for looters in the area, and it's hard to tell who's who.
There were about 600 Cal Fire personnel assigned to the CZU Lightning Complex last week, and that number more than doubled over the weekend as it became clear that the Santa Cruz area wasn't being well defended. And Cal Fire admits that it is short on bodies because it's not able to tap as much of its "camp system" of inmate firefighters due to the pandemic and early releases of inmates.
Zucker says his team successfully dug a fire break that kept one fire from jumping a ridge and burning into Laguna Canyon, where it likely would have burned many homes.
And as he tells the LA Times, "We know that of course the professionals don’t want amateurs in their way. But when there weren’t any professionals up here, we really had no choice."
Photo via CHP Santa Cruz/Twitter