A Close Call With the CZU Lightning Complex Fire

We got to come back home. Our house was among those still standing, a spared neighborhood. We got lucky. 

Another 925 single-family residences, and over 1,400 structures, did not; their timber and metal frames reduced to ash. 86,509 acres would burn in total from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, only reaching 100% containment on September 22 after roaring to life from lightning strikes the morning of August 16, 2020. It was an unprecedented wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one which would destroy the homes of so many, and would threaten the existence of thousands others, fortunate enough to survive such a close call. 

It was a near miss for many – something that could have easily happened to any of us living near the fire zone. Sparked by lightning, fires raged with savage abandon across the parched landscape of California, displacing thousands across the state, killing several, and marking yet another historic wildfire season. Many people lost everything in these fires, and lived through it with harrowing tales to tell. Mine is simply a tale from the perspective of a lucky evacuee in Ben Lomond going through breast cancer treatment, whose home still stands, but whose naivete about the threat of wildfire is long gone. 

As I wrote about previously, my husband Ron and I were awakened in the wee hours of August 16 to a dramatic thunderstorm with lightning strikes that would be the catalyst for the Waddell and Warrenella Fires, among other locations in San Mateo and Santa Cruz County. Collectively, they would be called the CZU Lightning Complex. 

At first we weren’t too concerned, but soon, Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon were on fire. By the evening of Wednesday, August 19, the fire’s footprint had expanded toward the San Lorenzo Valley. We could hear the menacing sound of exploding propane tanks in the distance, each resonating boom the sign of someone likely losing their home. An eerie, orange glow rose from the horizon. We were checking online for updates and watching the news; the fire was still a couple of miles away, but we presumed we’d evacuate soon.

We had time to pack up our cars with our most beloved belongings. Given that grace, we could methodically decide what we would take, and what we could leave behind. Old pictures, journals, sporting equipment, clothes, and other sentimental memorabilia made the cut. We appreciated that time to pack up without rushing. 

I had begun a 5-week radiation regimen for breast cancer treatment earlier that day, and had also returned to work as a seventh-grade Math and Science teacher after a six-month medical leave-of-absence. It had been a really long day, to say the least, and the stress of an impending wildfire compounded my exhaustion.

We went to bed under an evacuation warning, at our last check. Around 3:30 a.m., we were startled awake by a Santa Cruz County Sheriff driving through our neighborhood alerting us to evacuate. The sirens and the sound of his voice through the bullhorn are seared into my memory – the repeated uptone of the siren, him driving up to our house and shining his lights in, broadcasting:

This is the Santa Cruz County Sheriff. There is a mandatory evacuation order for this area. Please evacuate immediately, he calmly ordered, the seriousness in his voice echoing through the canyon. We hadn’t gotten a reverse-911 call or text to evacuate, so his alert was our call to go. He continued driving throughout the neighborhood repeating the alert and sirens, looking for the few driveways with cars still in them. 

Our cars already packed, we put our beloved cat Beau in his crate, and headed out in our separate cars; most of our neighbors had already left, we realized as we drove through our nearly empty neighborhood. We went to the closest and safest place I knew of: my school classroom. We spent the rest of that first night there, the best place I could think of at that hour, with Beau meowing incessantly before finally curling up to sleep for a few short hours.

The next morning, we did something I admit wasn’t too wise: we drove back home. The roads were open, people were still clearing the area, and we thought of a few more things we wanted to get. We live about a half mile from the Felton townline, which had just been ordered to evacuate, so we tried to justify our return: if they’d only just been ordered out, and we nearly lived there, we could skip back home for a few things, we figured. In retrospect, this was a stupid thing to do, and goes to show how arrogant we humans can be sometimes – at least we were. We don’t think the worst is going to happen to us; we assume that somehow, we’ll be spared. As I learned earlier this year with my cancer diagnosis, you can never assume you’ll be spared from the worst. Why I thought this fire would spare us was purely blind faith – and arrogance.

Later that day, we were blessed to be offered housing by a friend in Santa Cruz; she’d heard we were evacuated, and reached out to me. I cannot express the gratitude we felt having her place to go; it moved me to tears. We were able to catch our bearings and relax, knowing we had a place to stay. I am eternally thankful for her generosity and grace. We felt truly lucky to have a roof over our head. 

We stayed six nights at her beautiful home, watching the CalFire morning and evening press briefings like primetime television. These news conferences were the most informative and helpful source for fire updates, and we hung onto every word. CalFire’s Twitter page provided a steady stream of content, which we checked regularly. For a few nights, the firefighters stressed how concerned they were about the Highway 9 corridor above Ben Lomond; how the terrain there was so steep and inhospitable, it rendered traditional firefighting methods obsolete. It was impossible to get heavy equipment on some of the near-vertical ridges, and they couldn’t even get hand crews on the ground in spots. 

Ben Lomond Mountain is a steep-sided, long ridge that runs along the Ben Lomond Fault, part of the broader San Andreas Fault system. Starting along the beach at the intersection of Woodrow Avenue and West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, its spine continues North along Empire Grade Road to its highest point at about 2,640’ elevation. It is a beautiful mix of redwood forest, Douglas Fir, coastal chaparral, and mixed oak woodland, with sweeping ocean views in places. Some of the best mountain biking in Santa Cruz lies down Ben Lomond ridge, with steep trails snaking through loamy dirt under the forest. But firefighting? It’s an absolutely terrible place to be. 

We were on eggshells that first week, watching the fire line advance down Ben Lomond Mountain eastward toward our home. It got about a mile West of our house, according to fire maps, and that’s when we really started preparing for the worst. We heard that Big Basin State Park, home to old-growth redwoods, had burned. Redwoods are adapted to fire and will recover, but the park’s historic headquarters had burnt to the ground. Henry Cowell Redwoods was threatened, with parts of Fall Creek already afire. Winds were pushing the fire further South, and East, toward the University of California Santa Cruz campus, my alma mater. 

I bet we have a 50-50 chance our house makes it, my husband predicted. 

Who knows if those odds were correct, but it sure felt like a toss up at the time. We were genuinely scared, and hearing firefighters report their concern solidified the imminent danger. We were safe and sound, though, and that was most important. Beau was like a baby, crying all night keeping us up, then sleeping most of the day. We were exhausted, stressed out, and worried about losing our house. I spent more time looking at my phone and computer than ever – scrolling through news stories, watching videos, checking for updates. It was all-consuming. Officials warned us to brace for weeks of possibly not going back home. 

So many families in the San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley were evacuated that our school start-date was ultimately delayed from August 24 to August 31; it would later be pushed back even further until Tuesday, September 8, after Labor Day weekend. Although the circumstances weren’t good, I appreciated, and needed, that extra time to prepare before distance instruction began as I continued going to Santa Clara daily for radiotherapy.

Beau had met a few neighborhood cats by this point, including the two primarily outdoor cats that lived at our friend’s house. They had a face-off from across the courtyard, meowing at each other with their fur raised, as cats do. We didn’t want him to end up fighting with one of them, and knowing our return date back home was up in the air, we decided to head up to my Mom and step father’s house in Walnut Creek. 

We spent the next four nights at their lovely home. Beau continued to cry every night, making sleep disjointed. My mom’s cat, Mocha, was somewhat welcoming to Beau, but there was tension between the two, and I had to keep an eye on them when they were together. Though extremely grateful to be housed with family, Ron and I were both so tired, longing to go home, if not only to get Beau home so he’d stop crying. 

Smokeset Behind Sibley Peak

We continued to watch the news briefings, read the newspaper, and check social media for updates. The fire was holding steady up the ridge, West of our house. They’d done some backburns in the area, and progress was being made. We were encouraged.

Then, Scotts Valley was allowed home. The next day, Felton was clear. Then, on the afternoon of August 31, we got the all-clear: we were allowed to return home! It was the longest time I’ve been away from home in fifteen years – eleven days gone. 

I cannot explain the excitement I felt driving home, Beau riding in tow. I’d left the door to his crate open so he could move about the car, and he was crying nearly the whole drive from the car’s motion. He ended up crawling onto my lap before curling up on the floorboard for the hour and fifteen minute trip back to Ben Lomond. When we got home, as soon as I opened the door, he ran inside the house just like any other day. 

Ron got home soon after in his van, and we soaked up the moment of being home. Our house and yard were covered in ash, with burnt leaves scattered about. We found a large piece of burned insulation, and a piece of a photograph in the garden. Helicopters continued doing water drops from Loch Lomond, flying over our house throughout the afternoon. Slowly, neighbors began returning home, but Boulder Creek and other communities in the fire zone would have to wait even longer. 

A Common Sight in the Yard

There was an air of excitement and gratitude, with signs popping up around the neighborhood thanking first responders, and welcoming people back home. There were lots of smiles, and looks of awe as evacuees returned, if they were lucky, to their homes. We all slept like babies that first night back. We felt indescribably happy to still have our home. 

Burnt Insulation From Someone’s House

Yet so many had lost so much. Hundreds of homes were gone; families displaced without a place to go. One man died on Last Chance Road. Others had close calls that send shivers down your spine: a man had spent hours in his pond, breathing through a metal pipe like a snorkel, as the fire ravaged his property. I cannot imagine the terror of being completely surrounded by a roaring wildfire, whose gases and smoke threaten as much as its flames. Others had bravely driven through the fire to escape, following winding mountain roads as trees and homes exploded on either side of them. We heard stories of farm animals being evacuated to the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville; of stoic neighbors who had stayed at their property to fight the fire, already having the foresight to clear substantial defensible space, and successfully fending off fire not only from their property, but their neighbors’, too. 

We were amazed by the firefighters and law enforcement who were on the perilous front lines, toiling around the clock on little sleep. I wrote Thank You cards to all the local fire departments, Sheriff’s office, and CalFire CZU, and donated to firefighters who’d lost their homes in Boulder Creek. 

Watching the press briefings from Skypark in Scotts Valley, basecamp for first responders, we were comforted by the detailed information shared with us each morning and evening, and the more we learned of their efforts, the more we saluted them. They were working in such challenging terrain, and often used the word unprecedented to describe the fire. 

The word heroic doesn’t fully convey the magnitude of first responders’ actions, and those who managed to stay and successfully defend their properties. Valiant, tenacious, and well-prepared, these tough-as-nails souls stood in the face of a burning warzone – something only they can ever understand. They share the unique yet terrifying experience of living through a raging wildfire, bonded by adrenaline, urgency, and persistence. 

Water drops from helicopters continued throughout the following days, with smoky skies and poor air quality sometimes limiting their flight. One afternoon, a helicopter was flying right over our house on its way to and from Loch Lomond, the sound of its blades reverberating through the windows of the house. We were used to their presence at this point, but I was shocked to hear what sounded like a tree limb falling on our roof: a loud BOOM! sent me running. I was looking for what it was – checking the roof, deck, trying to figure out what had happened. It sounded like a boulder or tree falling on the roof, but there was no such sign. 

Then, I noticed some mud on the side of our shed. Investigating further, I saw another dense clump of mud. In the backyard, there were dinner plate size globs of it scattered about. Finally, I noticed my car had been splattered, too. Curious, I peered closely at the roof, and saw a large scattering of mud. Aha! Improbable as it may be, mud had fallen from the helicopter’s water bucket. Loch Lomond has some pretty thick mud, and it likely stuck to the bottom of the bucket, falling off in clumps along the way to the drop. The sound it made was certainly incommensurate with the amount of mud that was there. Luckily, there was no damage. I figured it was the least that could happen considering what others had been through, and what these firefighters and flight crews were risking to protect our communities.

Everyday after, the news got a little bit better; containment was increasing, and the press briefings grew more optimistic. I liked the firefighters for their calm, straight-shooting demeanors delivering information we yearned for, watching their news updates with admiration and appreciation. Thank you doesn’t even approach what these men and women deserve from us. The National Guard was even called in to help, with a basecamp transforming the parking lot at Roaring Camp Railroads into a village.

The smoke lingered for weeks that felt like months, with oppressive air quality reminding us on a daily basis just how historic and pervasive these wildfires were. One afternoon in particular – Wednesday, September 9 – was so hazy that it got dark in the Santa Cruz Mountains around 4:30 p.m., the air so thick with ash that it resembled a volcanic eruption. There were pictures of orange sunsets trending on social media for days. People grew desperate for fresh air; some left the state altogether and drove East to escape the suffocating smoke. Even with the windows closed, air quality was unhealthy inside most homes. 

It was 4:30 p.m.! Smoke Eclipse

Ron and I took a drive up the coast in the middle of September, trying to find some fresh air. We drove up Felton Empire to Empire Grade, to Pine Flat and Bonny Doon Road, and then up Highway 1 to Waddell Beach. This was our first time driving through the part of the fire zone since we’d been home. We didn’t want to be looky-loos, and gawk at peoples’ losses. Rather, it was a somber, humbling drive, full of sadness for those who’d suffered such ill-fate. 

I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for twenty-two years, and used to live on Smith Grade on the edge of the fire zone. I’d never seen anything like it, and it was important to see it firsthand. California’s wildfires are the manifestation of climate change, compounded by years of fire suppression in some areas, and are only getting worse each year. Seeing it with my own two eyes drove home the severity of the situation, and deepened my compassion for those who’d lost everything.

Driving up the coast along Highway 1, I saw a coyote bounding through a field on the westside of the highway. Though not uncommon to see, it was likely forced there from lost habitat on the eastside. Then, at Waddell Beach, we noticed a strange figure down the beach. It looked like a large raccoon, but as it waddled behind a piece of driftwood, we noticed its unique markings: it was a badger, on the beach. Badgers are elusive animals; I’d only seen one once before. To see one on the beach, near its habitat of Waddell Creek, but likely displaced, saddened me. We slowly backed away from the poor little guy, hoping it would be alright. 

East of Scotts Creek
North of Waddell Creek, Highway 1
Rancho Del Oso, Big Basin
Badger on the Beach

Seeing the coyote and badger that day was no coincidence. Wildfires don’t just displace humans, but wildlife, too. The animals that didn’t perish in the fire now have to contend with a drastically diminished habitat and food sources. I feel just as sad for the animals as I do the humans who lost their homes. 

After weeks of monumental efforts, on September 22, the fire was deemed 100% contained. Although it will not be considered fully extinguished until soaking rains begin, which will bring its own hazards from mudslides and the like, it’s a major milestone to be celebrated. I took a drive soon after through most of the fire zone, ascending Alba Road to Empire Grade, dropping down into Jamison Creek Road before continuing up Highway 236 until the closed entrance of Big Basin.

It was a sobering drive. Burned forest surrounded either side of the road, with lost homes dotting the way. I didn’t stop to take pictures of people’s burned down homes, but I used a GoPro camera to capture the general scene as I drove through the fire zone.

I continued back to Empire Grade, where I was astounded that some peoples’ homes had made it, while their neighbors just next door had not. Some properties had all the vegetation and trees burned right up to the house, but their four walls had remained. Continuing down to Smith Grade, my college rental still stood. I then drove to Ice Cream Grade, where the fire had traveled right through the trickling creek bed, leaving a coating of waxy ash behind.

Driving back home along Felton Empire toward Highway 9, the white ashy ground stood in stark contrast to the singed redwoods towering over the forest floor, some of which had fallen like matchsticks across the canyon. Some trees had burned entirely, while others got off with a toasted understory. Fire is a natural part of an ecosystem, and trees are adapted for it, especially here. It was a melancholy sight to see, how ever well-adapted these organisms may be. 

Felton Empire

Another day, I rode my mountain bike up to the edge of the fire zone along Empire Grade, where some of the trails had been plowed through to make fire breaks. Many trees were felled. Pockets of burned trees stood in the forest. There are many signs of fire and ash throughout the mountains. 

We got lucky this time, but it could have been us. It’s been over a month since we came back home. It was unsettling to ponder losing my home, on top of the threat of losing my life to cancer. It was challenging and stressful at times, but ultimately unremarkable, and nowhere near the heart-wrenching grief that those who lost everything are going through.

I am infinitely grateful for the firefighters, first responders, and utility workers that worked so hard to protect our homes and restore essential services. Although they may say they were just doing their jobs, their hard work and expertise made a world of difference for so many people. Highway 9 has been abuzz with a steady stream of utility, PG&E, remediation, and tree-trimming trucks, all working hard to help communities get back on their feet.

My heart goes out to all of the people who lost their homes and were displaced; to the people who are forced to persevere in such devastating circumstances; to the wildlife that have died, and will die, as a result of this wildfire. Although this wasn’t the first wildfire the Santa Cruz Mountains has seen in modern times, it is the worst. Tragic, heartbreaking, catastrophic – all of those words describe this historic event, but they don’t fully embody the way that fire victims must feel. I am in awe of the courage survivors are demonstrating in the face of such adversity. Whether it was a close call, a wake-up call, or a last call, it was a reminder for everyone that the next wildfire is a mere lightning strike away.

Indeed!