This map insert shows the SCU Lightning Complex fire area as of the morning of Aug. 25.

Firefighters are confident that they have created solid protection for thousands of residents of South County who live closest to the western border of the SCU Lightning Complex fire. Still, CalFire authorities cautioned that fighting the massive blaze—which has burned more than 363,000 acres of mostly wilderness since Aug. 16—will be a “marathon.”

The SCU Complex has whipped up a whirlwind of nerves for many who live in eastern Morgan Hill. On Sunday, Aug 23, areas that include the Jackson Oaks and Holiday Lake Estates neighborhoods were upgraded from an evacuation warning to an order, as weather forecasts for thunderstorms and lightning threatened CalFire’s containment efforts.

But just over 24 hours later, CalFire downgraded the order to a warning. On Aug. 25, some neighborhoods of east Morgan Hill and Gilroy were removed from the warning zone altogether.

Morgan Hill Police are continuing patrols in the evacuation warning zones within the city limits, according to city staff.

In recent days, CalFire personnel and equipment have reinforced their protection on the western border of the SCU Complex fire—the edge that is closest to residential populations in east San Jose, Morgan Hill and Gilroy. These efforts include extensive work inside Henry W. Coe State Park, using bulldozers to cut a 60-foot firebreak inside the park, well in front of the flames.

“State parks are embedded” with CalFire, Santa Clara Unit Chief Jake Hess said Aug. 25. “We are engaged with them daily. We have troops and mechanized equipment in and on (Coe Park), and are actively putting in a fire line to stop this fire.”

Hess added, “That western edge, we have a lot of resources in there.” These resources—including personnel—have increased as the SCU Complex has grown and reached a higher priority among the many wildfires burning throughout the region and state.

CalFire has also increased its air operations above the SCU Complex, dropping fire retardant and water on the wildfire, reads an Aug. 25 email from Morgan Hill city staff. As crews complete protective dozer lines, CalFire will begin burn operations to starve the main fire of fuel as it approaches from the east. These controlled burns will likely produce more smoke in the valley and foothills.

“We’re having to staff up and have that marathon long view that we’re going to be here for a long time,” Hess said in an Aug. 25 press conference. He noted that numerous “cooperators” including private property owners, state parks, PG&E and numerous other parties have been meeting daily to discuss the immediate and long-term firefighting strategy for the SCU Complex.

During the brief period that portions in the eastern city limits were ordered to evacuate, American Red Cross and county staff received several dozen visitors at the evacuation resource center at Ann Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill. Brad Gordon of the American Red Cross said they served about 25 people on Monday, and about 35 on Sunday. The center is not a shelter, but provides information about lodging availability and other resources for evacuees.

Jackson Oaks resident Bruce Heron visited the resource center at Sobrato High on Monday just to see if residents in the zone could return home soon. Heron, his wife and the couple’s dog were able to flee to a relative’s home on the west side of Morgan Hill.

Heron said in the 40-plus years they have lived in Jackson Oaks, this was the first time they had been ordered to evacuate.

“We were astounded that they first had a warning, then we were even more astounded they had an evacuation order,” Heron said. “There have been fires a lot closer than that” over the years.

Even just last month, Heron added, there was a brush fire on the east side of Anderson Lake that burned hundreds of acres, but no evacuation order was issued for the hillside neighborhoods.

CalFire, police and city officials said there was no substance to social media rumors that state parks authorities initially tried to block the state firefighting agency from entering Henry W. Coe State Park to address the SCU Complex. Hess and Morgan Hill Police Chief Shane Palsgrove responded to the rumors at an Aug. 24 town hall hosted by the City of Morgan Hill.

“We were hearing about that on Facebook and NextDoor,” Palsgrove said. “There were no issues from our standpoint. Once CalFire responded to that area they went straight up to Henry Coe Park and started stationing equipment up there.”

Hess noted that the state parks department has “their own policies and procedures on mechanized equipment” in the parks. However, the two state agencies have been “great partners.”

Hess added that there are some concerns about the environmental impact of cutting a 60-foot swath of vegetation through the remote park for a firebreak. But Coe Park officials “understand the magnitude of these fires and have been cooperating with us,” Hess said at the Aug. 24 town hall.

As of Aug. 25, the SCU Complex has burned more than 363,000 in seven counties, and destroyed 18 structures. Five people—firefighters and civilians—have been injured. The blaze is 15 percent contained.

The SCU Complex is between the second and third largest wildfire in California history, CalFire officials said Aug. 25.

And it’s not the only large wildfire burning in the region. The CZU Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains has burned about 79,000 acres and destroyed 330 structures.

The LNU Complex fire is burning in Sonoma and Napa counties has burned about 352,000 acres and 937 structures. Five fatalities have been reported in relation to that fire.

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Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.


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