'No one's helping us': Residents form crews to fight fires in Santa Cruz Mountains, despite risk

One member of this volunteer group says there is a network of neighbors that have packed water pumps, chainsaws, water buffalo tanks and fire hoses. Each are working around the clock to save homes.

Amanda del Castillo Image
Tuesday, August 25, 2020
Residents form crews to fight fires in Santa Cruz Mountains
Amateur brigades have formed to fight wildfires burning Santa Cruz County. They say they've already saved dozens of homes, but fire crews warn their efforts are dangerous for both them and the firefighters.

BONNY DOON, Calif. (KGO) -- The CZU Lightning Complex Fire burning in both Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties has torched more than 78,000. By Monday evening, the fire was 13 percent contained, having burned 276 structures.

CAL FIRE announced a majority of those destroyed are located in Santa Cruz County.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Track wildfires across Bay Area, other parts of CA

Already, amateur brigades have formed to fight the fires there. These are teams of residents who refuse to let their neighborhoods burn down.

Defending Bonny Doon is the goal for several groups in the area.

ABC7 News connected with one crew who calls themselves "Rescue 1."

The team of eight includes close friends and long-time Santa Cruz mountain residents who refuse to sit aside during the growing CZU Lightning Complex fire fight.

"We know the terrain, we know where to find the water, we have the resources and we have a small group of manpower that that can get a lot of work done," Cuyler Ruskin said.

VIDEO: Dozens of homes burned in Santa Cruz County's Bonny Doon neighborhood

In the tight-nit community of Bonny Doon, are dozens of homes that are among the more than 200 structures destroyed by CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Ruskin explained he grew up in Ben Lomand, and is currently a Reno resident.

"Did 90-miles-an-hour down here, as fast as I could to come help in the in the battle out there," he explained.

Ruskin said his crew is just one of many that have organized similar efforts throughout the mountains. He said there is a network of neighbors that have packed water pumps, chainsaws, water buffalo tanks and fire hoses. Each are working around the clock to save homes.

"There are no fire trucks. No one's helping us, and we refuse to let people's houses burned to the ground," Ruskin described. "So we're going to use our local knowledge, who we are, our strength and the resources we do have to pull the water, get down there and put the darn thing out."

"I don't see a problem with that," he continued.

However, CAL FIRE officials maintain doing so presents real danger. On Monday, in response to resident brigades, Deputy Chief Jonathan Cox said a main concern is preventable injury and entrapment.

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"By that, I mean, we use air tankers with 20,000 gallons of retardant in them," Cox told reporters. "We use fire as a tool to actually stop an on-coming fire."

Cox said for the sake of safety and success, those efforts must be coordinated and communicated by professionals.

"Any sort of organization that may impede with firefighting operations is not only potentially harmful for them, but it's potentially harmful for our firefighters as well," he said.

With regard to experience, Ruskin said three people on his team are off-duty fire captains for other fire departments around the state.

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"So we have a few trained guys with us, that's the thing as well," he said. "So that's what they do for a living. Some of them have been doing firefighting for 25 years. I grew up a fire chief's son. I never got into firefighting, but you know, it's in my blood, it's in my family."

Cox continued, "Our message is, 'We need space to operate. We need to be in the evacuated zone to be able to get our crews in, to be able to work safely, and nothing is more important than having the space and the ability to do that.'"

"Not to blame anyone, and not to blame CAL FIRE or blame the government or blame the other fire departments... It's straight up facts, they don't have the resources," Ruskin added.

With multiple raging fires and firefighting resources stretched thin, Ruskin said it's a risk residents are willing to take.

"We're letting our hearts override that and we're willing to take that risk," Ruskin told ABC7 News. "We're willing to put our own lives on the line to save others. And that's all it is."

He said "Rescue 1" has already saved 26 homes and counting. "At least 26 homes out of 70 in the one area of Pine Ridge on the top, Bonny Doon- what we've been defending."

"Us local Santa Cruz mountain boys that have grown up here our whole lives, we took it upon ourselves to go and defend our hometown and our valley and our trees and our community," he said. "And that's all we're doing up there and we're able to accomplish it."

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He said the crews working to put out fires in Bonny Doon are taking on the danger, head on.

"Not trying to get in the way of anyone, not trying to downgrade anyone. We're all just trying to help and save people's lives, their livelihoods, their homes, their animals, we pulled many animals out," Ruskin said."

According to Ruskin, he said the resident crews are now having to deal with law enforcement and the Santa Cruz Sheriff's Office blocking roads.

"They're worried about the looters. I understand that. So are we! Clearly, it's our homes that we're worried about getting looted as well," he added. "But the problem is, is that now they're locking us and blocking us out from going up and helping the fight."

During Monday's evening press conference, Deputy Chief Cox added, "As a human, I can sympathize with them for wanting to save their property and their community that they love."

Ruskin said it's that love that is keeping residents on the front line.

"They're trying to say that we're getting in their way. They've said that this 'local militia, Bonny Doon Santa Cruz mountain guys,' the- whatever they're calling us- is getting in their way, I'll tell you the facts. I've been there for six days now in the center of this fire. We haven't seen one single aircraft until just last night," Ruskin explained. "And they weren't near us, because we'd already saved our neighborhood as best we can. So the point is, is that we haven't gotten in anyone's way."

Get the latest updates and videos on the CZU, LNU and SCU Lightning Complex Fires here.