By Emily Alpert and Marilyn Dubil Staff Writers
Coe State Park - A massive, uncontrolled brush fire sweeping through
Henry Coe State Park quintupled in size in a single day, as
firefighters struggled to push the inferno away from cabins and
By 5pm Tuesday, more than 7,000 acres were
burning - five times as much land as Monday night, when 1,200 acres
were aflame. The blaze fed on private and public lands alike, sweeping
across a checkerboard of privately-owned ranches and the public park.
At its closest point, the fire burned nine miles away from Anderson
Reservoir and its surrounding homes.
Firefighters have dubbed it
the Lick incident, named for the Lick Observatory, where a 911 caller
initially believed it was burning. The observatory is 10 miles from the
fire, and isn't threatened.
Six tankers, including a mammoth
DC-10 Victorville tanker, dumped coral-pink retardant onto the hills,
trying to douse the flames fulminating in the manzanita bushes and oak
trees. Four helicopters, seven bulldozers, five water tenders, 26 hand
crews and 50 engines aided in the attack. Plumes of smoke - white
striped with black - were visible from as far away as Santa Cruz
Tuesday afternoon. By 10am Tuesday, 1,200 people from 30 different
departments from Hercules to Salinas had contained 10 percent of the
blaze, said CalFire spokeswoman Pam Rhoten, and successfully corralled
it north of Poverty Flat Road.
"But this 10 percent is the easiest 10 percent," she cautioned.
didn't sound easy: Firefighters worked against steep terrain, dense
brush and a narrow, winding dirt road that served as the sole access to
the site. To reach the fire's farthest point, crews faced a three-hour
trip along the dirt paths. A handful of firefighters succumbed to heat
stroke and beestings, said CalFire spokesman Wayne Connor - but no
other injuries were reported.
As of 5pm Tuesday, the fire's cause
was unknown. Its only casualty was a small outbuilding, likely a cabin,
said Rhoten. Ten hunting cabins and two rangers' homes were evacuated.
To the west of the fire, park staff rescued historic artifacts such as
memoirs, deeds and a prized painting from a park museum, just in case.
"We pretty much shut the whole park down," said Cameron Bowers, backcountry park ranger.
noted that the fire hadn't hit the wilderness areas, where fire crews
face greater restrictions on tractor use. "We try not to deter
[CalFire] from what they're doing - safety comes first."
could imperil the already-endangered red-legged frog, said CalFire
spokesman Kevin Colburn, due to the quantity of ash, sediment and
retardant flowing into nearby waterways.
Bowers was optimistic that in a dry year, the frogs had already retreated from nearby creeks and wouldn't be impacted.
Avenue, which leads to the park, was closed Tuesday afternoon at
Holiday Lake Estates and at Jackson Ranch, said Rhoten. Only those who
can prove their residency will be permitted to enter, she said.
winds clocking 5 to 15 miles per hour were pushing flames to the east,
said Steve Anderson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.
good news for firefighters, since the eastern areas are unpopulated.
But the winds are expected to swing west and north as early as today,
blowing smoke toward Gilroy and Hollister, said NWS meteorologist David
The crews prepared themselves at an elaborate command
center in Christmas Hill Park, where firefighters were briefed at 6am
Tuesday before heading into 24-hour shifts.
CalFire will pay the city of Gilroy $500 a day for the use of the site, said city spokesman Joe Kline.
north side of the park commonly known as the Ranch site was closed to
the public Tuesday, to allow fire engines and equipment to rumble in
and out of the camp.
Solorsano Middle School students and
parents will be blocked from the Miller Avenue side of the school for
student pickup as well. Miller Avenue was shut down Tuesday morning,
then re-opened to the public. City staff recommended that residents use
an alternate route, if possible.
"On a fire this size, you get
a mini-city set up," said Frank Kemper, CalFire spokesman. "There's
kitchens, shower units, sleeping space for the inmate crews, laundry
Minimum-security inmates clad in orange jumpsuits were pitching khaki tents Tuesday morning in the park.
partners with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to
bring inmate crews to support firefighters, explained Kemper. The
inmates will prepare meals for the 1,200 people toiling to snuff the
Kemper estimated that the fire would take five or six days to extinguish.
hasn't burned out here in a long time," reflected Bowers. "The dry
year, plus the amount of fuel we had … The park needs to burn."
Emily Alpert covers public safety issues for the Dispatch. Reach her at 847-7158 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.