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NPR News

Tough Terrain and Drought Test Firefighters in Loma Fire

Firefighters continue to make progress on the Loma Fire burning in the Santa Cruz Mountains. As of Thursday evening, firefighters had reached 22% containment and the fire had burned more than 3,800 acres.  

It's a fraction of the more than 550,000 acres of land that wildfires have burned this year in California. Cal Fire says that's largely been fueled by the drought.

Cal Fire Information Incident Officer Jordan Motta says the drought and tough terrain are the biggest challenges in the Loma Fire.

On a drive toward Loma Prieta peak, Motta says the narrow roads that wind through the Santa Cruz Mountains are less than ideal for fire equipment.

“It’s a lot of mid-slope roads like the one we’re driving on now that are accessible for one and a half cars,” Motta says.

Helicopters frequently fly overhead. When the terrain is rugged and steep, air support is an important resource for dropping water and fire retardant.

Homes in the area are very remote. Only mailboxes marking the start of driveways can be seen from the road.  “It’s country, it’s backcountry,” Motta says. “We’re in the woods.”

The woods look desperate for rain and Motta points out dead trees along the way.

“As the drought continues we see an increase number of fires as fuels get drier and vegetation gets drier,” Motta says.

Continuing up Loma Prieta Way, Motta stops to talk with a fire crew using chainsaws to cut back that dry vegetation.  Matt Alexander is the crews captain.

“We’re stripping the vegetation from the road so we can have a better shot at the flames coming, they’ll be less intense and then they won’t spot over the road and we can contain the fire,” Alexander says.

Alexander and his crew came directly from the Sawmill Fire in Sonoma County.

“No home breaks for a little while until these get wrapped up,” Alexander says.

There are a dozen wildfires burning in California. In 2016, Cal Fire has already fought 525 more wildfires than at the same point last year, keeping crews busy. Jordan Motta was called into the Loma Fire on his scheduled days off.

Upon reaching the Loma Prieta ridgeline, there’s a bird’s-eye view of the fire burning in Uvas Canyon. The smoke is thick and rolling and flames shoot up in the distance.  

From this vantage point, the emergency communication towers on top of Loma Prieta peak that firefighters saved are also in view. They’re surrounded by charred mountainside. It looks like the moon.

“It’s something we’d call good black, meaning it has very little or no potential to re-burn,” Motta says.  

For residents on the Santa Cruz County side of the fire, it’s safe to return home.

Erik Bischoff has lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 30 years. Firefighters saved his home.

“It burned right up to the road and I’m right on the other side of the road so they stopped it right on the side of the road. I’m all good,” Bischoff says.

Mandatory evacuations remain in place for Santa Clara County residents. The expected containment date for the Loma Fire is Monday. 

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