Jenny Wu lost a lifetime of memories when her Boulder Creek house burned to the ground in the August inferno that torched a huge expanse of Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. Jewelry and jade from her parents, family photos and other artifacts of her heritage were all consumed by fire. But she plans to rebuild.
“I thought to leave,” said Wu, owner of The Red Pearl restaurant in the tiny forest town. “Then I changed my mind.”
The CZU Lightning Complex Fire that leveled hundreds of homes, displaced tens of thousands of people and laid waste to Big Basin Redwoods State Park killed only one person, thanks to widespread evacuations. But not even two years ago in Paradise, another California forest community, a wildfire killed 86 people. Experts say climate change will make future fires bigger and more intense.
Nevertheless, here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, many forced out by this summer’s fire have come back, and many others have started the process of rebuilding houses and in many cases businesses.
For Wu and others, the catastrophe and its aftermath have laid bare what “home” really means.
When townspeople heard that Wu, an immigrant from China and owner of the restaurant for 14 years, had lost her house and belongings, messages of encouragement started to pop up on the street-side window of her business. More support followed, including two GoFundMe campaigns that have raised more than $17,000. Wu said she’s scared and worried about future fires, but the response from the people of Boulder Creek has made her determined to stay.
“I love this community,” she said. “I feel very blessed by everybody who helped me and supported me and loved me. They make me strong.”
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Lightning ignited the CZU fire on Aug. 16, and in the month before it was contained it ravaged nearly 90,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, wiping out almost 1,500 structures and killing one man trapped by flames on Last Chance Road.
Way up that bone-rattling, dusty, six-mile dirt road that winds into the mountains north of Davenport, past hillsides spiked with tall spindly black sticks that used to be mighty redwoods, sturdy firs, statuesque madrones and aromatic bays, past the wreckage of scattered homesteads, Satchel MacLennan, 29, has been hauling debris out of the spring he’s been drinking from since infancy.
He’s now standing in a flat clearing near the end of Last Chance Road, surrounded by redwoods burned to their tops, looking out over the broken stone foundation and ashy remains of the tiny log cabin where he spent his first eight years, with his parents and two sisters. A stone’s throw away are the ruins of the two-story, off-the-grid home his parents built later, where he lived with them and his girlfriend. Around him, the main house’s metal roof sheets, blackened and twisted into exotic shapes by the ferocity of the firestorm, have been flung all over, some into the woods.
That he and his family will rebuild and return is not in question, said MacLennan, a guitar maker and carpenter’s apprentice. His parents, both long-time grocery-store workers, first moved onto the 10-acre property almost 40 years ago. He’s never lived anywhere else.
“This is all I know,” MacLennan said.
He grew up roaming the woods, exploring the once-lush mountainsides and valleys, bushwhacking on occasion into Big Basin over a high ridge. When he was a child, his parents would give rides to Tad Jones, the 73-year-old Vietnam veteran who lived on Last Chance and died in the fire. MacLennan remembers that Jones always had mint-patty candies for the kids.
On that August night when Jones died, raging fronts of fire were roaring down onto the MacLennan homestead from two sides, fed by forest fuel built up over decades. MacLennan, his girlfriend and his parents, with their four dogs and one cat, fled in two trucks, his dad working a stick shift while still wearing an arm sling from shoulder surgery less than a day before.
MacLennan knows flames could come again, and landslides and debris flows from denuded hillsides will probably make wintertime access a nightmare for years to come. But the residents whose homes are scattered along the rugged route take care of the road, and each other, he said. His family’s home is insured and his parents, now in their 60s, will be able to live in a new, single-level house, he said. “We’ve always been an optimistic batch of people.”
Up in Bonny Doon, the mountaintop community between the coast and the San Lorenzo Valley, Robin Cash, 57, lost the three-bedroom home where he lived with his wife, and the woodworking shop where he made his living for more than a quarter-century.
“It’s 26 years of refining and making the shop perfect,” Cash said, standing in the ashes, looking at his charred and twisted machines. Planer, joiner, specialized saws, dozens of hand tools, a laser: all destroyed, along with 30,000 board feet of specialty lumber. “This is pretty devastating.”
Cash knows wildfires are “going to be a fact of life” and there’s still a lot of fuel left in the forest. But he and his wife, who were among the locals who helped fight the fire, will rebuild and stay, he said. “It’s a nice place,” he said. “The place I’m living in now, I’ve got a streetlight 50 feet from my front door. I thought about it. We could go move to Seattle. But no.
“The community is really strong. It’s crazy how people all want to help. It’s your community. You can’t leave.”
Some of the fallout from the CZU fire is unique to the communities affected, said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty. The area is full of artisans like Cash, plus artists and other home-based businesspeople. Many have lost their homes, tools and supplies, Coonerty noted. “People are really hurting,” Coonerty said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency workers are running a help center from a trailer in downtown Santa Cruz until Wednesday. The deadline to register with the agency for financial assistance and with the federal Small Business Association for low-interest disaster loans was recently extended to Nov. 21. The vast majority of damaged homes were in Santa Cruz County, and FEMA task force lead Cindy Shepherd said the center has helped more than 1,000 applicants from the county. However, the coronavirus pandemic has made it harder for her to provide emotional support.
“Sometimes they need a hug. Ordinarily, I’d give them a hug. I can’t do that now,” she said, adding that wearing a mask poses another challenge. “You have to put your compassion in your eyes.”
The size and severity of the inferno have left a deep residue of fear in the communities it struck, and people still displaced are thinking a lot about risk. For some, it’s too much. “We’re not going back. We won’t be rebuilding,” said Jack Heintz, who owns an appliance business in Santa Clara and lived off Empire Grade with his wife.
Initially, the couple considered moving closer to Santa Cruz, possibly into a bucolic valley east of Soquel. “It was like, ‘Maybe this is the next place that’s going to burn,’” Heintz said.
After living by a creek beneath 150-foot ancient redwoods, the Heintzes would like to continue to live in forest, maybe to the north. “California’s a little bit more wet when you get way up there around Eureka,” he said. “It does burn. We kind of go back and forth: ‘Do you think we’d be freaking out every summer, having palpitations?’ Maybe we don’t even stay in California and we just rent a place for three years and retire and just go out of state.”