In mid-August 2020, a severe thunderstorm moved into water-scarce Northern California and unleashed close to 13,000 lightning bolts, igniting hundreds of fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Two days after the fires began, wind conditions changed resulting in dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior. The three largest northern fires merged and rapidly expanded over 40,000 acres. The sky darkened with smoke, and fire, ash, and burned leaves fell as the evacuation of more than 64,000 people began.

That’s when Pinkerton Response Service was called to a facility located close to the evacuation zone.

“There were residents that couldn’t easily pack up and evacuate,” said Pinkerton Managing Director Mike Pentek, an expert in risk advisory, business continuity, and disaster recovery. “We sent a team to support the facility. We had agents protecting the property and residents, controlling access to essential staff, vendors, and maintenance personnel, and watching for spot fires.”

Pinkerton collaborates with law enforcement

“Because of our expertise and vast network,” Mike continued, “our team was able to establish a direct line of communication with local law enforcement and Cal Fire. We had agents partnering with the fire command center and receiving updates before they were on the news or on Twitter. The agents knew where the fires were and which direction they were heading. They relayed that information to the client, so they had a better idea of when they needed to evacuate.”

The Pinkerton team also kept local law enforcement abreast of what was happening at the client site.

“We were a conduit between local law enforcement, the fire department, and the client, and when it was time, everyone was safely evacuated,” Mike said.

Assessing the impact of the 2020 California wildfires

After the evacuations, firefighters and emergency responders continued to work tirelessly to contain the flames and protect communities, but the scale and intensity of the fires posed significant challenges.

In some cases, residents were able to return to their homes relatively quickly — within a few days — as crews gained control over certain areas and deemed them safe for re-entry. However, in other, heavily affected regions where the fires were more intense and widespread, it took much longer for residents to be allowed back to their homes, sometimes several weeks.

Authorities needed to ensure that the fire was fully contained, that hotspots were extinguished, and that the infrastructure and utilities were restored to a safe condition. Additionally, the assessment of potential hazards such as unstable structures, fallen power lines, and debris-blocked roads needed to be completed before residents could safely return.

“The priority was always to protect the safety of the residents,” said Mike.

In the end, the fire took its toll. It burned for 37 days, consuming 86,509 acres and destroying 1,490 residential and commercial structures, while damaging 140 more.

This was but one of the record-setting fires in the 2020 California wildfire season. By the end of the year, more than 9,900 fires burned nearly 4.4 million acres, some 4% of the state’s land. The wildfire served as a stark reminder of the increasing threat of wildfires impacted by climate change in the western United States, prompting a renewed focus on wildfire prevention and mitigation strategies.

Published September 06, 2023