Wind, ground thicket fuel Santa Cruz fire in California

The wildfire threatens 250 residences. Many people have packed what they could and left.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    An air tanker drops fire retardant chemicals on the Lockheed wildfire which burns out of control in a rugged region of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Bonny Doon, Calif., on Thursday.
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The thick brown smoke from a raging wildfire drifted above California's scenic coastal Route 1 Friday morning as firefighters continued to battle the blaze spreading over the hills outside Santa Cruz.

The wildfire grew from 2,800 acres Thursday evening to 4,170 acres Friday morning as firefighters kept up efforts to protect about 1,000 nearby structures – both homes and farms tucked away in the hills of Davenport, Swanton, and Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz County.

Local law enforcement officials have issued mandatory evacuation orders for as many as 2,400 people, and fire officials say 250 residences are threatened by the fire. At least 5 percent of the fire was contained Friday morning by the 676 firefighters fighting the blaze.

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This fire – called the "Lockheed Fire" due to its proximity to Lockheed Martin's Santa Cruz campus – is proving especially challenging because of the rough thicket of pine trees and brush that covers the hills in an area that hasn't seen a fire this size since the 1940s.

"There's a lot of fuel on the ground," says James Dellamonica, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire . "It's difficult to fight because of the terrain."

What's more, says Mr. Dellamonica, "We've had some beautiful California weather in the past few weeks and haven't had much rain ... all the components for fire."

On Friday morning the coastal winds had died down, giving firefighters some relief, says Daniel Berlant, another Cal Fire spokesman.

But the winds that sweep from the Pacific, across the farms that line the coastal highway and into the soft hills where the Lockheed Fire continues to burn, remain a major concern to fire officials.

At a firefighters' staging area in Davenport, Rachel Anne Goodman, who lives in nearby Bonny Doon, pointed out her house on a map showing the blaze's perimeter. She estimated her home is about a mile and a half from the fire's edge.

She realized it was time to evacuate when ominous red clouds of smoke appeared over her house. It was difficult to tell just how close the fire was, she says, "but it was scary."

"I started walking around the children's rooms and wondering if it would be the last time I would see our house," she says.

Ms. Goodman and her boyfriend left their home Thursday evening with a carload of possession – photos, computer hard drives, and musical instruments. "There are so many things I would go back and take."

While many of her neighbors have fled too, she says, others have stayed behind to protect their homes.

In California, she says, while these sorts of fires are typically accompanied by mandatory evacuation orders, law enforcement officials can't force homeowners to flee. So for homeowners in the line of a fire, there's a constant debate about whether to stay behind and try to protect your home along with firefighters or seek safer shelter – as fire officials strongly encourage.

"If the wind doesn't go that way," says Goodman, "I feel pretty good about the firefighters defending those houses" in Bonny Doon.

While more fire crews arrived to fight the Lockheed Fire on Friday, California firefighters were also busied with blazes in Los Padres National Forest and Santa Barbara County, making for a vigorous start to California's fire season.

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