Boulder Creek’s Tyrone Clark refers to himself as a “solutions guy.” He’s lived in the secluded, mountainous Santa Cruz County town of about 5,000 residents since 1991, and when the CZU Lighting Complex fire swept through the area, he felt compelled to do more than just watch.
“When the evacuation orders came down, I wasn’t going to leave. I told the officials that when the Boulder Creek Fire Department left, I would too,” he says.
Clark says he was told that the fire department was evacuating, so he led a caravan of five vehicles out of the area, only to find out later that the department was staying put. Clark says that the department had been ordered to disperse but was refusing to give up on saving its town. So, he returned and perched himself atop the roof of a gas station with a garden hose and a prayer. Clark’s determination to protect what little he could became more than just an independent effort: It is transforming into a group of area residents banding together.
The SLV Civilian Fire Responders is a Facebook group that boasts nearly 300 members. Visitors to the group can find information and conversations about portable water tanks, hoses, couplings, radios and portable repeaters, maps of civilian water tanks and local fire roads. The goal, according to Clark, is to allow for personal choice when it comes to deciding whether to evacuate in the face of oncoming flames.
“The authorities can tell us to evacuate, but they can’t legally make someone leave their property,” Clark says.
Clark said that he isn’t telling others what they should or shouldn’t do in the case of an emergency. But he highlighted the efforts of hundreds of residents who stayed behind during the CZU Complex and were working 12-14 hour shifts to keep watch over property and homes while Cal Fire struggled with low staffing because of last year’s historic fire season.
“These guys created fire breaks, felled trees, raked leaves and dirt for hours to develop defensible space and put out spot fires,” he says. “As a result, they saved dozens of houses.”
One of Clark’s success stories, he says, during the CZU Complex was the use of Boulder Creek American Gas Station as a vantage point for Cal Fire refueling resources.
“They were having to drive back and forth to Scotts Valley for fuel, so I helped get a diesel generator hooked up at the station, and the Cal Fire folks were really grateful for the help,” he says.
As Clark sees it, his group is coalescing around the idea of marrying California mountain-bred self-sufficiency with freelance firefighting. The group’s Facebook page lays it out succinctly: They’re not asking for permission, and they believe they’re not creating liability—they just want to be viewed as allies and colleagues for local fire departments.
“There needs to be a referendum that tells local government agencies that we are going to stay behind and fight to save our community, and they have no right to tell us otherwise,” he says. “If my buddy calls for help during a fire, and the police are going to arrest me while I’m en route to help him, there’s going to be a problem.”
But fire officials in the Valley say that several of Clark’s statements are inaccurate, and they worry for the safety of residents who stay behind to tackle the flames themselves. Boulder Creek Fire Protection District Chief Mark Bingham says his department was never told to evacuate during the CZU Complex, and that while Clark “might believe he is not creating a liability for our team members, he is.”
“Mr. Clark may stay on his own property during the event, but if he becomes a hazard—if he were to, say, light fires to fight fires, or if he were to block a road so that the fire department had minimal points of ingress and egress, he would be ordered to leave,” says Bingham, adding that removal of individuals falls under the jurisdiction of law enforcement officers.
Overall, though, he’s worried about the safety of Clark’s group. They might mean well, Bingham says, “but they don’t have the training, the organization, the leadership, the communication or the tools at our disposal.”
“We have incredible training standards—firefighters don’t hit the ground running until they’ve got hundreds of hours of training behind them,” he says. “This civilian group doesn’t have the standards and the safety mechanisms in place to keep themselves and others safe. The CZU fire is a great example of how well-prepared we were. We effectively evacuated an unprecedented amount of people. We planned the routes and the timing, and did so in a way that prevented choke points. For groups who get together in this way, I caution that they are lacking a lot of plans.”
Felton Fire Chief Robert Gray echoed Bingham’s fears.
“I am concerned that there is no mention of personal protective equipment for the team members or equipment for burn-over protection or a meaningful training program,” he says. “I do not want to see anyone get hurt or killed trying to help.”
Ben Lomond Fire Chief Stacie Brownlee also says she is concerned for the group’s safety, and says that she shared her thoughts directly with Clark.
About a month ago, Clark started the Facebook page to increase his reach among community members, and he says he has found a lot of interest from his fellow Valley residents, who he says are “filled with talent.”
“Most of this is common sense, but the potential of dying in a firefight is not going to persuade people to leave—most of them would still stay to protect what’s theirs,” he says. “Almost every single house that burned could have been saved by a 400-gallon tank of water in the back of a pickup truck with a hose and a generator for power. If you look at the trees around the houses that burned, the trees didn’t catch fire. It wasn’t a forest fire: It was a sneaking ground fire that got close enough to the homes to light them on fire.”
Bingham says that he has seen an increase in trucks in the Valley outfitted with water tanks in the beds, and that is a point of concern. He says that that amount of water is “negligible” when trying to fight a fire, and that personal vehicles are not meant to haul partially-filled water tanks because they may overturn due to the “slosh factor”—the natural movement of water that carries momentum even after its container comes to a halt.
Boulder Creek Fire Protection District has been around for almost 100 years. The leaps in fire technology, training and tools over that time, Bingham says, are what keep his firefighters safe while rushing into the smoke and flames. He says he understands that some residents will stay behind to defend their property, as they did during the CZU Complex, but “it raises concerns that they might become a hazard in the process, both to themselves and others.”
“If you stay behind, you are a hazard,” he says. “I’m not taking anything away from the folks that stayed behind during the CZU Fire. Can magic happen? Sure. But those who stayed behind and had successful outcomes got lucky. That won’t always be the case. The next time, we could be doing body recoveries, because there is no accountability for residents staying behind.”
One person died in the CZU Complex last year, nearly 1,500 structures were destroyed and 86,509 acres were scorched as flames ripped through Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. Along with that devastation, the fire left a $68 million bill in its wake. Cal Fire crews were largely overwhelmed by the fire, as calls for backup went unanswered for several days because firefighters were overwhelmed by the hundreds of wildfires sparked by a lightning storm that hammered much of Northern California.
Already spread thin because of that flurry of flames, firefighters stationed in the Valley fighting the CZU Complex also had to multiple times respond to calls from people that had not evacuated days before the fire wove its way through the forest and to their homes. Responding to those calls “takes our plan and throws it out the window,” Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Mark Brunton said during a press conference in the midst of last year’s fire.
“For those people who are in those areas, we [evacuated] for a reason,” he said.
The SLV Civilian Fire Responders page features a YouTube video showing the expansion and progression of wildfires in the state of California since 1910. Last year was by far the worst year in the state’s history, as five of the 12 largest fires happened in 2020. And Cal Fire officials have said they expect this year’s fire season could be “very active” due to continued drought-like conditions. To this point, Clark says he wants his fellow civilian fire responders to be prepared with everything from hand-held radios to “fill locations” for “striker rigs” (the aforementioned trucks carrying water tanks, hoses and a power source). The group, he says, is simply there to fill a gap in the flow of information that was made apparent during the CZU Complex.
“We need to know where our auxiliary water sources are, and how to get to them to save our property,” he says. “I’m not trying to recruit an army of people to stay behind and become the fire department. I just know that there will be thousands of people who will not evacuate, and if everyone has water and communications, everyone will be safer and more effective. I’m not trying to be a group; I’m trying to be an information source, and help people be prepared.”
Bingham, alternatively, encouraged those who want to help protect their community in the event of a catastrophic fire to apply as a volunteer for the local fire departments.
“Our bar for volunteers is set pretty high, and that includes a heavy time commitment in addition to a physical agility test and medical exam during the recruitment phase, and constant training once you become a member,” he said. “We’re always taking applications.”