Those who faced down the CZU Lightning Complex fire, and those who heeded warnings and fled, are having to look long and hard at their decision to evacuate or not this week with massive rain and wind projected.
For the small mountain town of about 5,000 residents, the feeling was somewhat familiar: The entire town was evacuated for weeks in August and early September, during the CZU Lightning Complex fire. And just last week the unseasonal return of wildfire led to the evacuation of about 20 nearby homes.
Now, the danger is debris flow. Forecasts for up to 8 inches of rainfall in the CZU burn scar from Tuesday to Thursday are exactly the kind of storm that local officials and first responders have spent months warning about and preparing for.
Evacuation orders were issued Monday morning for about 5,000 residents in Santa Cruz County’s rural San Lorenzo Valley and parts of its North Coast. Many live in or near Boulder Creek, where areas of the town to the west of Highway 9 are considered especially vulnerable.
How many residents planned to heed the orders was difficult to say. The Sheriff’s Office was continuing to go door-to-door in evacuation zones Monday evening and logging those who chose not to leave — but their tally was not yet available.
Kevin Foster runs a popular Facebook group for Boulder Creek residents and founded a local community-emergency response team. He said he expects to see a split reaction to the evacuation order in his community.
“My sense is it’s going to be half and half,” Foster said. “A lot of people are going to stay home. A lot of people are going to take the safe route and go stay in a hotel. And it depends on the location.”
Most are taking the threat of debris flow seriously, according to Boulder Creek resident Tyrone Clark. But he said some residents are still harboring distrust for evacuation orders due to tensions built during the CZU fire.
The prospect of residents defying evacuation orders in high numbers has been met with repeated pleas from local officials. A Sheriff’s Office official said Monday he “couldn’t stress more” the importance of heeding evacuation orders.
Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson added his own voice to the growing chorus, urging residents to follow evacuation orders in a statement released Monday evening.
“Our emergency planning team and response agencies have spent countless hours preparing for the likelihood of these dangerous slides, but it is the willingness of our residents to evacuate that will ultimately save lives,” McPherson said. “We know it is a great hardship to leave your homes, especially after all we have been through with the fires, the pandemic and last week’s power and water outages. But we must remain focused on getting through this challenging time together.”
On the ground in the San Lorenzo Valley on Monday, views appeared to run the gamut. Some living in evacuated zones, such as Felton resident Jared Brick, said they were planning to leave their homes in advance of the rains Tuesday.
Brick, who moved into the area in 2017, said debris flow danger isn’t his primary concern. “The blackouts and the road closures are really the issue,” he said. “It’s not really the house getting destroyed.”
Others said they would stay, including William Masterson, who lives near Highway 9 to the north of Boulder Creek.
“I think they’re overreacting,” Masterson said of local authorities’ response as he filled up canisters to power his generator at a Boulder Creek gas station.
Unlike some in the area, Masterson said he evacuated during the CZU fire, which burned several homes in his neighborhood. But this time he isn’t convinced he is facing a serious danger.
He said a neighbor had a USGS geologist inspect the area, and based on their assessment — and his reading of debris flow risk maps — he believes the danger to his neighborhood is relatively low, and to his own home, even lower. “I’m not real worried,” he said.
Still others said they were undecided.
Coco McAuliffe evacuated during the CZU fire and returned to find flames had scorched right up to her family’s Boulder Creek home.
Lodging costs added up significantly in August, and now she isn’t sure where her family will stay if they leave. And many of her neighbors, she said, plan to stay at their homes.
“I don’t necessarily want to evacuate,” McAuliffe said. “I’ve been through pretty rough storms up here before, just not after a forest fire. So I’m torn.”
Asked about residents who are planning not to heed evacuation orders, Boulder Creek Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Bingham advised them to reconsider.
“I urge you to look at the experienced people that have been putting the time in that are looking out for you,” Bingham said. “… If you stay behind, you’re making it a greater hazard for the rescuers who have to go out there and essentially come out and find you.”