John Haskey of Bonny Doon.
John Haskey of Bonny Doon discusses how he and his wife have carried on after losing their home in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire last year.

(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz )
Recovery & Reopening

‘The sound of explosions’: One year after CZU, the echoes of loss reverberate for the many still recovering

Since the fires, Cyndy Haskey has seldomly visited this nearly three-acre lot where her home once stood in the Braemoor neighborhood of Bonny Doon. There is almost nothing here to visit. And even if there were, the memories and associations are just too strong.

For as long as she lives, Cyndy Haskey will hear the exploding propane tanks.

It was somewhere around 2 a.m. on the final night she would spend in the beautiful Bonny Doon home she and her husband John had lived in for the past 20 years.

On the first night after the dramatic lightning storm, the Haskeys could make out the red glow along the ridge above Boulder Creek. At the time, they knew of no evacuation order, but once they heard the explosions, they knew it was time to act. As soon as they could gather up their two cats and a few belongings, the Haskeys fled, never to see their home and almost everything in it ever again.

The Haskeys’ story may not be a unique one in the wake of the CZU fires that destroyed more than 900 homes in Santa Cruz County. But it’s a sobering reminder of the post-traumatic anguish that so many who lost their home are still experiencing a year later.

Hand-drawn signs all along the main thoroughfares in the San Lorenzo Valley and Bonny Doon urge homeowners to come back and rebuild. Even beyond the very real insurance headaches and financial hurdles that rebuilding entails, many have been shaken by the fires to ask themselves whether or not that’s something they really want to do.

Sand bags and fencing mark where the Haskey family house used to be along 300 block of Braemoor Dr.
Sand bags and fencing mark where the Haskey family house used to be along 300 block of Braemoor Drive in Bonny Doon on Saturday, August 14, 2021. John Haskey and his wife, Cyndy, lost their home in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire last year.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz )

Since the fires, Cyndy Haskey has seldomly visited this nearly three-acre lot where her home once stood in the Braemoor neighborhood of Bonny Doon. There is almost nothing here to visit. And even if there were, the memories and associations are just too strong.

When she comes to the property, as she did one recent weekend, “I immediately go back to that night, and the glow, and the sound of the explosions.” (An emotional Cyndy didn’t want to be photographed for this story.)

The Haskeys also endured a uniquely contemporary trauma regarding the loss of their home. They learned about it on social media.

When they fled in the wee hours as the fires grew close, they took refuge in a church in Santa Cruz. “We didn’t want the cats in the church itself,” said John Haskey, “so we all slept in the restroom.”

The next morning a family friend offered more fitting arrangements and the Haskeys were briefly hopeful, learning that the fire had shifted somewhat and spared their home.

It was not to last, however.

That night, hungry for any information, John and Cyndy kept refreshing their social-media feeds. That’s when they saw their house. In flames. Someone they didn’t know had taken photos of their house and posted them.

A fire-damaged Kubota tractor sits on Haskey family's plot along the 300 block of Braemoor Drive in Bonny Doon.
A fire-damaged Kubota tractor sits on Haskey family’s plot along the 300 block of Braemoor Drive in Bonny Doon on Saturday, August 14, 2021. John Haskey and his wife, Cyndy, lost their home in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire last year.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz )

That was really horrible. It was so close you could see the address of the house. Someone was in the yard taking pictures of our house burning down. And, for some reason, that was really hurtful and offensive to me.

“That was really horrible,” said Cyndy. “It was so close you could see the address of the house. Someone was in the yard taking pictures of our house burning down. And, for some reason, that was really hurtful and offensive to me. And it made me think differently about seeing these kinds of things on the news.

“People were trying to tell me, ‘Well, I wish I knew what was happening to my house.’ It doesn’t work that way. It didn’t bring me any comfort or closure to know that my house was burning down and someone was taking pictures while it was happening.”

The Haskeys, in fact, lost two houses that night. They had built a second house on their property as a guest house and rental. It too was a complete loss.

The entire corner looks alien compared to how it looked before the fire. Not only are both houses gone, so are many of the trees on the property. Stately madrones had created a dense green canopy. Now a few dead or dying trees stood against a naked sky.

* * *

Before & After

* * *

A stunning view of the San Lorenzo Valley across the way didn’t exist before, because that’s where their neighbors’ houses once stood. Those are gone too. The fires destroyed a majority of the homes in this once picturesque neighborhood, yet some were untouched.

“I haven’t been up here in a couple of months,” said Cyndy, walking gingerly across the lot with John, a thin haze in the sky reminding her of the sinister skies of 2020. “But every time I come up here, coming up Empire Grade, I still don’t know where I am in places. And to know that every time you go to get a quart of milk, you have to drive through a burned-out forest, it hurts.”

The traumas and struggles since the fires have come from all directions, from wrangling with insurance adjusters, to grappling with looters. Among the losses was John’s Mini Cooper, which created a hunk of melted metal that John had hoped to one day hang in his garage as a piece of memorabilia/abstract art. One day, the strangely beautiful piece was gone. “Somebody else decided they liked it better than I did,” said John.

John Haskey of Bonny Doon.
John Haskey of Bonny Doon discusses how he and his wife have carried on after losing their home in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire last year.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The Haskeys have not decided whether they will rebuild on this land. They are currently living in an apartment in Santa Cruz (“It’s very loud,” said John), mulling their options. They have had to assess whether whatever contentment they had living in Bonny Doon before the fires could ever be regained, even a little bit. They’ve noticed the disparities between what they can afford in Santa Cruz County and what they afford in other parts of the country.

“There’s a kind of tear-down on the Westside,” said John, “and that’s about a million and a half. And on the Olympic Peninsula (in Washington state) where we’ve been looking, there’s an 1880s Victorian that’s been completely redone with, like, 10 bathrooms and 11 bedrooms or something. And that’s a million and a half. And when you look at those two structures, you go, how does that make any kind of sense?”

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In the meantime, 12 months after the fact, the Haskeys are still engaged in the messy emotional labor of grappling with their unfathomable losses, from the pipe organ they had in the house to Cyndy’s mom’s wedding dress.

Next to a small storage shed on the property is a bench on which is kept a small collection of artifacts pulled out of the ashes: antique opera glasses, random pieces of china, a piece of tile from an estate once owned by Steve Jobs. There’s a terracotta rabbit once owned by Cyndy’s mother that’s now in their Santa Cruz apartment. A ceramic bird purchased at a flea market years ago somehow survived the fire unharmed.

“He’s sitting in my living room at the apartment,” said Cyndy.

“It went,” said John, “from being just a tchotchke to being …”

His wife finished the thought, “to being a precious treasure.”