With a shortage of firefighters, Aaron Lingemann of Earth Flow Drilling Co. and a group of neighborhood residents in northern California went to work to save their homes and equipment yards in August from the CZU Lightning Complex fires.
Lingemann and 24 others banded together to directly save at least four homes in Bonny Doon, a small community located northwest of Santa Cruz, California, and considered part of the southern San Francisco Bay Area with a population of 2600. Besides the eaves and other parts of some homes being burned, the group saved more than 25 homes in their neighborhood.
“We stopped the fire with the fire break around the whole neighborhood,” Lingemann says of the fires that started August 16 from lightning strikes. “We’re pretty sure it would have burnt close to 100 homes if we didn’t stop it, but we’ll never know.”
Local news reporters followed the group that consisted of Lingemann’s father, John; Justin Robinson of Tom’s Well Svc.; three building contractors, and others who employed their own equipment to fight the fires. Lingemann used his company’s water truck while Robinson’s pumps and tanks were loaded on trucks. They used an assortment of heavy equipment to draw fire lines.
“It feels really good to have made it work,” says Lingemann, “but there were a lot of other people doing the same sort of thing in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, but not all of them had as good of success as we did. We feel so sad for the hundreds of families who lost their homes.”
Lingemann, 52, had his two children and wife evacuate to Santa Cruz near the beach. Meanwhile, Lingemann and the group worked tirelessly for at least a week combating the fires. They didn’t see a fire truck for at least three days.
“The fire had touched all our fire lines before anybody came to help,” he says. “We had cut with equipment and by hand fire lines all around our neighborhood group of houses. We worked with two neighbors on both sides who did the same thing and we all coordinated and had walkie talkies with each other to coordinate this 6- or 7-mile line around all these houses.
“We had people stationed day and night making sure nothing jumped. A few times it did, and we had to go put these spot fires out on the other side with the water truck and service truck with pumps on the back.”
Lingemann used fellow water well contractor and friend Dave Landino’s yard in Davenport, just 15 minutes south along the coastline and inside the roadblock, to get rest, water, and charge his phone. He slept the first night but didn’t sleep the next four days because they were so busy. The group snuck in an hour or so of sleep in trucks when they could manage to do so. The group also received meals and fuel from those in the area.
Wearing a respirator mask and gloves, Lingemann says the first few days were scary hearing at least 30 or 40 propane tanks exploding from the houses burning above them in the mountains.
“It sounded like we were standing next to a jet engine in the beginning up on the ridge above us,” he says. “But luckily, we were on the side of the fire not directly in the wind-driven fire that was going through the neighborhoods, so being on the flank or on the edge, the wind was cooperating with us. It would’ve burned all our houses down, but it wasn’t a raging inferno. It was manageable.”
As of September 2, containment had grown to 43%, according to news reports, with more than 1100 structures burned in Santa Cruz County since the fires began. Fire officials reported 85,218 acres have burned so far and another 6700 structures remain threatened by the flames in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties.
Lingemann, whose father John started the company in the late 1960s, says it had a backlog of 20 wells before the fires. The company now has additional wells it will need to repair and new wells to drill due to the fires damaging them. The company will work with the local health department to address the affected wells.
Moving forward, the fires have spurred the group of residents to collectively look out for each other.
“We’re talking about continuing our neighborhood fire group and turning it into a legal entity so that we can receive donations to buy equipment and be more prepared if this ever happens again,” Lingemann says. “Going forward, we want to help people be more prepared for situations like this in the future. This would include clearing their properties of brush, maintaining distance around their water systems, and keeping PVC pipes above grade at a minimum.
“One of my guys in our fabrication shop is thinking of making drop-in firefighting units to put in our work trucks to be ready if this happens again.”
—By Mike Price