A small crew of firefighters pack into a red fire engine and barrel up a road west of Brookdale in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They’re on mop up duty; scouting for new sources of smoke, looking for burned trees and any hot spots that could reignite the blaze.
Even though the flames have receded, this phase of the firefight will go on for weeks. It ensures the fire doesn’t spread so people can safely repopulate their homes.
The firefighters turn onto Alba Road, a narrow stretch of pavement, where utility workers repair downed power lines, loggers scout for weakened trees, and county officials assess damage.
The Cal Fire team, who’s come all the way from San Diego to work the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, is headed into Fall Creek, a northern area of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
The CZU Lightning Complex Fire ripped through the beloved redwood forest, known by locals for its hiking trails and historic remnants of the lime industry. As a result, Fall Creek, like many other parks, has been closed to visitors.
A thick blanket of ivory ash covers the ground and scorched redwoods, firs and oaks rise from it.
“It's changed,” Cal Fire Captain Steven Fralia said. “It's going to be different for a really long time.”
Many of the trees stand resilient. But others are twisted and split at obtuse angles. Some lay dormant on the ground.
Still, as Fralia looks out the window, he sees something else in the devastated park.
“There is a positive out of having a fire go through a forest that's been growing for decades and decades without any fires in it,” Fralia said. “It clears up all the fuels and allows the forest to kind of renew itself.”
Lightning fires, he said, aren’t typically managed unless they ignite near a community.
If the fire doesn’t present a threat to people, Fralia said, it can be beneficial for the forest to let the fire run its course. That can also help prevent future megafires, which Governor Gavin Newsom has attributed to climate change.
“It's a very delicate dance though,” Fralia continued, “between doing that and protecting structures and people.”
Once Fall Creek is cleaned up, Fralia said, sunlight will be able to reach pine cones and seeds that were once covered up by thick layers of leaf litter, and promote new growth of trees.
The land here hasn’t seen a wildfire this large for decades.
“This is Mother Nature out here, it's not like somebody’s front yard that gets raked annually or weekly,” firefighter David Gage said. “So it just keeps building up. It's just layers and layers of like older leaf litter from who knows how long.”
That makes the work to secure the CZU Lightning Complex fire line, and clean up its remnants, more arduous.
“So it’s basically just taking a lot longer to get it put to bed,” Gage said.
The crew spots smoke. They pile out of the truck, bringing hand tools and a firehose with them.
As they venture across the decimated landscape, they look overhead for fire-damaged branches that could fall. The crew carefully scans the ground, searching for signs of what they call ash-pits.
“We won’t see them and then you walk in it and you drop six feet into the ground, into the hot ashes, and [get] third degree burns all the way up your legs, and you don’t want that,” Fralia said.
Even though the flames have subsided, this is still risky work.
Embers can also hide within the dense layers of redwood needles, burned tree stumps and beneath roots.
“Out here in this terrain, there's a lot of root systems that are still burning that we can't see,” firefighter Nathan Corigliano explained. “And so we're getting smokes popping up randomly. So that's why we've been out here, this strike team is a 24-hour resource.”
The firefighters spot a giant fallen Douglas fir that’s smoking.
Even though the fir is burned, and lays dormant on the forest floor, layers of embers are embedded in the bark, Fralia said.
“They’ve got to scrape, from the inside out to the outside bark,” Fralia explained.
They get to work. Gage uses a tool called a pulaski to scrape and knock off embers. Then Corigliano wets down the hollowed out interior with a hose. They continued this duet for a while.
“I think about a cigar, running, it just keeps smoking and burning and burning, but if you snuff it out, it puts it out,” Gage said. “It’s kind of the same concept. I’m gonna knock off all those burning embers, wet it down, otherwise this thing is gonna just keep burning like a cigar.”
Embers can also potentially travel for miles, so this phase of the firefight is crucial to stop the blaze from spreading. It’s dirty work; the crew is immersed in clouds of ash. Throughout the day coughs can be heard.
The crew also attacks fire-eaten tree stumps. Embers still smolder within their bark, and cling to their roots.
Their last stop in the region, for now, is in a Boulder Creek neighborhood. They patrol for hazards, such as weakened trees, and smoke.
In the coming weeks Fralia says Cal Fire crews will conduct more mop up work in Santa Cruz County communities.
As of Thursday, over 2,280 people across Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties were still evacuated.
This type of clean up work means that more and more people can return home. And that people who have returned hopefully won’t have to evacuate again.
Even in the middle of a 24-hour shift, Gage reflected on what’s coming in the next month.
“October for us, especially down south, that’s when we get our Santa Ana winds. It's going to be really dried out,” he said. “So we're coming from this fire and going into just our normal peak fire season for Southern California.”
For him, and the roughly 14,000 other firefighters battling dozens of fires across the state, it will likely be a while before they get to return to their own homes.