Dewey and Cathy Gordon’s property is perched high on the eastern side of Morgan Hill, tucked into the steep, rugged hillsides above Anderson Reservoir. Their home, which Dewey designed when he was 20 years old, precipitously overlooks the reservoir, vast stretches of Santa Clara Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Late in the night July 4, the Gordons’ paradise almost went up in flames as a massive vegetation fire scorched hundreds of acres of dense grass and brush as it quickly spread up the hills on East Dunne Avenue. The aftermath of charred hillsides shows that the blaze, which became known as the Park Fire, surrounded the Gordons’ home on three sides and came within just a few feet of the residence.
But firefighters responded quickly and saved the home, and Dewey Gordon, 65, wanted to publicly thank the crews from CalFire and multiple other agencies that responded to the fire. During an interview on his property July 13, Gordon described how he watched firefighters take action in the middle of the night July 4-5 to surround the house and defend it from destruction—which would have been assured without the quick response.
“This would have been the end of my everything,” Gordon said.
The Gordons were fast asleep when they received a phone call about 11:30pm July 4 from a neighbor alerting them of the fire. Before they hung up the phone, the blaze was bearing down on the home.
“We ran outside on the porch and there it was,” Cathy Gordon said.
Dewey said the dry grasses that cover the surrounding hills—some taller than seven feet—went up “like a nuclear bomb.” The flames swept up from the southeast as quickly as the 40mph wind gusts, Dewey said.
“It was a firestorm,” he said.
But almost as soon as the Gordons were getting ready to leave, firefighters and fire trucks were approaching the threatened property. Crews posted near each of the 24 homes on the hillside community known as Finley Ridge Ranchos.
The firefighters immediately began digging with shovels and extending water lines, Dewey described. He said a firefighter even hopped on Dewey’s tractor and began to cut the grass in front of his home, in order to quickly create a buffer of defensible space.
“Their only point was to save the homes,” Dewey said.
CalFire Assistant Chief Nick Ciardella was the incident Duty Chief for the Park Fire, which ultimately burned 343 acres of vegetation before it stopped making forward progress the evening of July 5. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Ciardella explained that when a large-scale fire hits that threatens structures, CalFire crews strictly follow a detailed triage plan to prioritize which homes and buildings to try to save without posing extra risk to the firefighters.
Once the responding crews place a structure into one of three categories—not threatened, threatened and defensible or threatened and non-defensible—then they decide which resources to deploy and what tactics to enact, Ciardella said. These tactics are listed in the Wildland Urban Interface Structure Defense guide as check and go; prep and go; prep and defend; fire front following; bump and run; anchor and hold; and tactical patrol.
Ciardella said much of the tactical action to protect homes late at night during the Park Fire was anchor and hold. That means heavy use of ground resources, hand crew strike teams, fire control lines and water hoses.
CalFire also deployed multiple engines to the top of East Dunne Avenue to prep and defend the homes, Ciardella said.
At the Gordons’ property, a long control line is visible where firefighters dug up a boundary of thick grasses up to the top of the hill behind the home, creating a defensive buffer as the flames approached. The fire stopped at the control line.
“We’ll go in and do a line around the house,” Ciardella said. “Our goal is to not let (the fire) cross that line.”
Ciardella said CalFire quickly deployed ample resources to the Park Fire, allowing crews to pay attention to all 24 homes that were threatened. None were lost to the Park Fire.
“We were able to act very, very quickly,” Ciardella said.
By the time daylight broke July 5, CalFire aircraft started dumping retardant and water on the edges of the blaze. “By 10am, there was hardly any smoke on that thing,” Ciardella said.
Also responding to the Park Fire were the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, county parks department and California Highway Patrol.
Fire authorities advise homeowners—particularly those in rural neighborhoods—to cut back as much vegetation around their homes as possible in order to reduce natural fuel and create defensible space. Doing so could place their home in the “not threatened” category in the event of a wildfire, Ciardella said.
“Don’t rely on the fire department—let (your home) save itself,” he said.