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Summit Fire: Look at Rebuilding 3 Years Later

Summit Fire: Look at Rebuilding 3 Years Later

Santa Cruz Sentinel

May 29, 2011

Barry Wothers, 54, who lost his home, said the winds were 70 mph that day, and that when he caught sight of the fire about 5:30 a.m., there was no question of staying. He grabbed his four dogs; the two llamas “rode it out” and somehow survived, he said. His land became a Cal Fire staging ground and front line of sorts against the raging wildfire. He said firefighters took a valiant stand there, almost stopping the fire, about an hour before winds died down and the devastation lulled.

Wothers, a licensed contractor who has been active in the Ormsby Fire Brigade volunteer firefighting company, stood this week on the concrete roof of the new 1,700-square-foot circular home he is building into the side of a hill, to replace the one engulfed by the flames.

Eventually, the roof will be topped with soil and fire-resistant vegetation and become a “living roof,” he said. Down around the sweeping driveway, where the home is to overlook a large valley, the walls and rows of windows of the forming home call to mind old Roman stone. The new home perched into the precipice overlooking the valley is like a bunker, and will have roll-down steel doors in which he and his wife, Jennifer, and his 18-year-old son, Forest, can perhaps roll down and ride out the next one. Or leave.

He shrugged, and added, “I thought I was pretty good last time.”

Wildfires are kind of expected there, he said. To him, the Summit Fire became the chance to build the home he always wanted.

Wothers grew up on the “lower hill,” down near the Summit store. He bought the 28 acres at age 21, more than three decades ago, scooping up the spot with views of the Sierra and Monterey Bay where he and other local kids practiced shooting bottles.

“This was the four-wheeler spot in the 70s,” he said. “We were learning to shoot here as a kid. There was glass everywhere.”

Now, he is building, with a backhoe, wheelbarrows and “a lot of friends.”

All the county-required permits to rebuild cost about $80,000, he said.

In stark contrast, Dan Wallace, who said he owns several properties in the area, is angry about the fire response, the lack of county attention to road and other amentitie, and is suing the county and Cal Fire (the state firefighting agency doubles as the county fire agency, approving fire safety permits necessary for building, as well as fighting fire in and near wildland areas).

Wallace also was rebuilding this week, using concrete and other materials to do so. He believes county officials don’t want to encourage people to live up there and so don’t provide services homeowners deserve.

And he faults Cal Fire for the blaze.

“Cal Fire should have been responsible,” he said. “They should’ve been on top of it. This is Cal Fire’s $22 million screw-up.”

Wallace said the fees and costs to rebuild are “outrageous” and that many can’t afford to rebuild. Add to that now-skyrocketing costs to obtain fire insurance, necessary to get a home loan, and a new home isn’t an option for many. Though he said he can afford it.

“They need to stay out of our hills,” Wallace summed up, speaking of some in local government. And another point, he said “a group of us are going after them.” Presumably in court.

However Wallace welcomed a sheriff’s deputy who walked up asking if Wallace had seen an old gray pickup. Deputy Troy Zube said he couldn’t catch the vehicle in his patrol car, not on those roads, and doesn’t get up to the remote area as much as he’d like. Zube said “I get up here when I can; it’s so beautiful.”

Complaints began to roll in the dawn of the fire about as soon as the 911 calls did.

Marc Kraft, who lives on Ormsby Trail, said soon after the fire, when the fear was still fresh, that he had started calling police and fire and got no help from either one.

“They had plenty of time to get up there; the roads were totally open,” he said. “There was no way I could do it with a garden hose.”

He said he called the Corralitos Cal Fire station directly and was told they were awaiting orders.

“There was no one to help evacuate; I (was) calling for an hour and a half and asking, ’What’s going on?’”

He said he was told central commanders had to figure out the whole thing first.

Later, after he helped make sure his neighbors knew to leave, it got really terrifying.

“The fire jumped the road (Ormsby Trail) and I got really scared and got the dog in the car and said, ’I’m not going to die in here,’ and I just left.”

Cal Fire dispatchers in Felton cover Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties; Cal Fire dispatchers in Morgan Hill cover Santa Clara County.

At the time, Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mike Marcucci said Cal Fire originally dispatched units from the Santa Clara and Santa Cruz county sides. The fire began in Santa Clara and jumped into Santa Cruz.

“We also only have so many engines,” Marcucci said. “Every 911 call we got, we gave to incident commanders. They decide how to deploy resources. It’s helter-skelter at the beginning of a fire.”