As massive and deadly wildfires burn north and south of the Monterey Bay area, the City of Santa Cruz is trying to prevent one from starting here. The city has closed five public parks that are near homes and businesses.
So far this year, there have been over 100 fires in Santa Cruz’s open spaces. The most recent outdoor fire happened last Thursday in Pogonip Park.
Santa Cruz City Fire Department Division Chief Jason Hajduk walks to where that fire started. He heads down a path that leads to a homeless encampment underneath several trees. A pile of burned branches and someone’s personal belongings, including a coloring book, are still there.
“This was not intentional in the sense that someone set a fire to start a fire. But because of their activities, it did start a fire and it started spreading into the wildland,” Hajduk said.
Those who work at the nearby Central Coast Wild native plant nursery prepared to evacuate.
“It was luckily a small fire, but it's scary, it's really scary. We're surrounded by wildlands on all sides of the nursery, so it's definitely a concern here,” Assistant Manager Maddie Ginn said.
Now, with the risk of extreme fire, the city has closed Pogonip, Arana Gulch, Moore Creek, DeLaveaga and Arroyo Seco parks.
The city wants people out for two reasons: to make sure they’re not in the park if a fire starts and to prevent people from starting fires. People who ignore the closures face a fine of up to $100 and a 24-hour “stay away” order.
Santa Cruz Police and Fire Investigatos are also investigating some suspicious fires and have arrested five people over the past month.
In Pogonip, Hajduk sees fuel for fire everywhere. He points to five-foot tall grasses.
“All this grass is very dry, the brush is very dry and the trees are very drought-stressed. And so they're receptive to catching on fire, where normally they're not. Or they're not as receptive,” Hajduk says.
The parks will remain closed until there’s enough rain to reduce the extreme fire danger. Rain enters the forecast Tuesday night.