California's dove-hunting season opened Sept. 1, so retired
Campbell concrete truck driver Craig Locurto headed to his cabin near
Henry W. Coe State Park last Saturday to see what he could bag.
But with the temperature in the 90s, the doves seemed to stay hidden in
the shade, and Locurto and friends decided to cut their Labor Day
weekend short without a bird, returning home Sunday.
Twenty-four hours later, their weekend getaway was gone. The massive
Lick fire, which appears to have started on a neighbor's property,
swept along the middle fork of Coyote Creek and destroyed Locurto's
cabin and a friend's Jeep they had left behind. By Friday night, the
blaze was 45 percent contained and had consumed 37,660 acres of brush
and timber in and around Northern California's largest state park.
"Most people don't even know what's up here," said San Jose resident
Steven Matranga, 59, who returned Friday to the land his family has
owned for generations, "but every fiber of my body is tied into this
Cal Fire officials say the person responsible for starting the blaze, when flames escaped
a barrel being used to burn debris, has stepped forward. Officials
declined to name the person pending the end of the investigation, and
no decision has been reached on whether to pursue criminal charges.
But a visit to the burned area on Friday showed the fire appeared to sweep southeast down a narrow divide in which
Coyote Creek runs between two ridges.
"Everything is like a moonscape back there," said Locurto, who had
leased the property for over 20 years. "The cabin just melted."
A land of ranches
The lands around the edges of 87,000-acre Coe Park have changed little
in the nearly 150 years since the Homestead Act allowed settlers to
make claims on the properties. Parcels have been bought and sold and
conservation agencies grab what they can to add to the park. Those in
private hands, at 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level and with little
road access, continue to function as grazing lands for cattle or
hunting retreats for valley residents.
The biggest private owner is the San Felipe Ranch, owned by the heirs
of William Hewlett and David Packard. But many smaller properties are
owned by the descendants of Italian immigrants whose grandparents
farmed in the Santa Clara Valley and acquired mountain parcels in the
1920s or earlier.
"We've all known each other for 40 years or more," said John Leonti,
44, whose grandparents built their first cabin on another section of
land above Coyote Creek. "It's an oasis for all of us, and it's only an
hour and a half from where we live."
And the fires have come and gone, most recently in this area near the
northwest section of the park in 1961. Before Labor Day, that is.
The next property after Locurto's in the fire's path was the Laurel
Springs Gun Club. Bill Silveira, a construction executive whose company
is building a condominium high-rise in downtown San Jose, was just
leaving from his weekend on the property Monday afternoon when he
spotted the smoke plume.
Silveira met firefighters at the park headquarters and led them along
the backcountry trails he's known all his life. His grandfather was one
of the 11 original partners who bought the land from Henry Coe in 1929
after Coe, in a spat with a neighbor, decided selling to a noisy gun
club would present a suitable nuisance for his neighbor's cattle.
The firefighters protected three homes that club members have built
around their man-made Booze Lake. But an original cabin built by
Silveira's grandfather was lost to the flames.
"The fire just overtook us and swept through the lake so fast,"
Silveira said. "It was throwing spot fires ahead of the fire wall
itself, just hundreds of them. It was just the most incredible thing
I've ever seen.
"I realized then that you can't outrun a fire," Silveira added, as he
stood on the back porch of the three-bedroom home that he built, mostly
by himself, over five years in the early 1990s. He watched Friday as a
state helicopter circled repeatedly back to the lake, dipping to fill a
bucket of water and then hauling it off to dump on the fire.
Farther down the divide was mute proof of Silveira's realization. Three dead wild pigs lay scorched on a barren hillside.
partners in the gun club include Rich and Barry Cristina and Jesse
Weigel, owners of GreenWaste Recovery, a major South Bay garbage and
"It's not much of a gun club anymore," said
Barry Cristina, who has spent weekends there since he was a kid in the
1950s. "Now the lake is kind of the focus. We fish more than hunt, lay
around and swim." The lake, at 16 surface acres, is more of a pond, the
result of a dam the families built on Coyote Creek in an area called
Cold Flat in the 1960s. Cristina said the lake originally was called
"Cold Flat Lake" but a neighbor put up a sign that read "Booze Lake"
and somehow the name stuck.
"A couple of beers were had during that period," he said.
Despite the fire's wide arc and rapid spread, there are so few
buildings in and around Coe Park that only a few cabins appear to have
The modest property losses aside, many of the property owners say the flames will actually bring long-term benefits to the area.
"I wasn't around when the fire burned in '61," said Leonti.
"But I just know for several years when I was young there was an
abundance of wildlife. Lately it's been scarce. The brush was so thick,
an animal can't live with that."
be sure, there still are deer, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, wild pigs and
mountain lions roaming the properties in the Mount Hamilton range, with
the deer and pigs the legal targets of hunters. Mountain lions, now
protected under state law, are showing up with greater frequency.
Locurto said he looks forward to the winter.
"After the rain, it will all be green grass again."