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Sep 7, 2007
 By Marilyn Dubil - Staff Writer

A huge plume of orange smoke and ash erupts from the Lick fire at Henry W. Coe State Park east of Morgan Hill Monday evening.
Photo by: Special to The Times
Zachary Martinez, from the Linden-Peters Fire Department out of San Joaquin County, rests on a cot underneath a fire truck in the staging area at Christmas Hill Park Wednesday. About 1,700 firefighters are working 24-hour shifts to control one of the county's largest wildfires in recent history.
Photo by: Lora Schraft
A Grumman SA-2 air tanker drops a load of Phos-Chek retardant on the fire that will have burned more than 20,000 acres by today
Photo by: Chris Riley
Morgan Hill - A heavy haze hangs over Morgan Hill, the smoke from a monstrous fire that started Monday afternoon in Henry W. Coe State Park clouding the area as the wind shifted to an offshore gust Wednesday afternoon, turning the direction of the blaze toward Morgan Hill.

More than 1,700 fire personnel are "making great progress," according to CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant. By Thursday afternoon, the fire had consumed nearly 20,000 acres and was 25 percent contained. The inferno has the potential to become Santa Clara County's largest wildfire, could consume up to 30,000 acres and could cost more than $2 million to fight, according to fire officials.

"The extremely dry conditions are certainly working against our favor," he said.

A heavy inversion layer in the area grounded the air attack on the blaze Thursday, he said.

"That's disappointing, because the air tankers slow down the fire so crews on the ground can aggressively attack it," he said.

Though the winds continue to blow through the east, he said, Morgan Hill itself isn't threatened.

"There are about 25 homes out there, in remote areas, that are possibly threatened, but not Morgan Hill," he said.

Firefighters have dubbed it the Lick incident, named for the Lick Observatory, where a 911 caller initially believed it was burning. The observatory is 10 miles from the fire and isn't threatened.

Officials have set up a command center and "tent city" at Christmas Hill Park in Gilroy to accommodate the large number of vehicles and personnel. Berlant said there are 198 engines, 48 hand crews, 10 air tankers, eight helicopters and 29 bulldozers involved in the effort.

Officials identified the probable cause of the blaze on Wednesday. An illegal burn barrel lit on private lands near Booze Lake in the park's northeast section is believed to have ignited the mammoth blaze.

Burn barrels are commonly used in rural areas to incinerate trash, but they're illegal in the park area, said CalFire spokesman Dick Rawson.

"You take a large oil drum, shoot holes in it and burn things inside it, so they don't blow around - usually," Rawson said. "Maybe it did this time."

As of presstime Thursday, no arrests had been made, Berlant said, and the investigation was ongoing.

Ten hunting cabins and two rangers' homes were evacuated Tuesday. To the west of the fire, park staff rescued historic artifacts such as memoirs, deeds and a prized painting from a park museum, just in case.

The fire could imperil the already-endangered red-legged frog, said CalFire spokesman Kevin Colburn, due to the quantity of ash sediment and retardant flowing into nearby waterways.

Park ranger Cameron Bowers is optimistic that in a dry year, the frogs may have already retreated from nearby creeks and won't be impacted.

Steep hillsides have delayed firefighters, who travel a single, cramped dirt road to reach the fire. Its farthest point is a three-hour trip along that path, deep within the park.

"Just getting out there is a bear," said Napa fire captain Jim Pope. "The distance has been a real hindrance."

With multiple fires raging throughout the tinder-dry state, CalFire's resources are strained, said Pope. Because the Lick fire isn't threatening homes, it's a lower priority, despite its staggering size.

"People really need to be careful, even mowing a lawn or using a weed trimmer - it can take off, and it's hard for us to play catch-up," said Pope. "We still have the worst part of fire season ahead of us."

The current fire has outpaced by far in acreage consumed the last large fire in the South County area. The Croy fire burned for seven days in September 2002, charring more than 3,000 acres. Thirty-four homes were destroyed, and several were damaged. Families and animals were evacuated from the rural area. One of the positive consequences of the fire was the creation of a volunteer fire unit in the area.

Morgan Hill police Cmdr. David Swing said Thursday that the Office of Emergency Services has a large map of the fire's location. Residents concerned about the proximity of the fire to Morgan Hill can make an appointment to view the map in the MHPD's Emergency Operations Center, 16200 Vineyard Boulevard, by calling



- Cause of fire believed to be illegal trash burn

- Nearly 20,000 acres burned

- More than 1,700 fire personnel involved in


- 198 engines, 10 air tankers, 8 helicopters

and 29 bulldozers

- Firefighting costs could reach $2 million

Marilyn Dubil
Marilyn Dubil covers education and law enforcement for The Times. Reach her at (408) 779-4106 ext. 202 or send her an email.
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