Bonny Doon resident Tonje Switzer has turned the experience of her home burning down in the CZU fire into a way to help others through post-fire recovery. “Her story,” says one person who knows it, “is one of a clear-eyed motivation to succeed in values-driven work, leaving a trail of people better off, and community better built, in her wake.”
Unsung Santa Cruz
Lookout spotlights regular folks doing great things
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More than two years and four months have passed since the CZU Complex fire scorched large swaths of the Santa Cruz Mountains and swallowed nearly 1,000 homes in its path. Yet each weekday morning when Tonje Switzer leaves her Bonny Doon home to walk her dog, Astra, a tapestry of Tyvek tarps, wooden house frames and blackened redwood trunks set against a chorus of miter saws and hammers affirms the axiom she instills in her clients.
“Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint,” Switzer says.
Switzer remembers sitting on her back patio on Aug. 16, 2020, as that fateful lightning storm swept in. After watching bolts strike the forest, she rushed to gather her husband, their daughter and dog into the car and evacuate the home they had moved into just a couple months earlier. The family returned two days later, their house still standing, to collect a few cherished items before a mandatory evacuation was issued later that afternoon.
Ultimately, Switzer’s home would meet the same end as 910 others: reduced to a pile of ash and char. Yet before she knew her own family’s fate, she sprang into action on behalf of others. Two days after the evacuation order, Switzer hiked the Pogonip, searching out those in the houseless community and providing them evacuation maps and updates on the fire’s latest activity.
That show of dedication to the well-being of strangers in a moment of unparalleled personal tragedy is only the first snapshot in a still-growing mosaic of Switzer’s commitment to her community in CZU’s wake, as both a volunteer and in her job as a manager with Mountain Community Resources. She’s done everything from laying down infrastructure to keep post-fire toxic contamination from Santa Cruz’s watershed, to guiding desperate residents through the byzantine world of development permits and contractors.
“She’s a bright mind with a heartbeat tuned to the needs of this place we call home,” says Kevin Heuer, a director with the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County. “Her story is one of a clear-eyed motivation to succeed in values-driven work, leaving a trail of people better off, and community better built, in her wake.”
Switzer prefers to work in the background, which explains her slight uneasiness as we wind slowly on foot through her neighborhood, a photographer in tow, talking about the work that has earned her a designation as one of Santa Cruz’s unsung heroes.
“This is weird, I am a behind-the-scenes person,” Switzer admits. “But the first thing that comes to mind is that there are so many unsung heroes. When a disaster like this happens, community comes together, even those who have lost their homes and are still struggling.”
Switzer’s preferred title is activist. At least, that’s the identity most responsible for putting her where she is today. She immigrated from Oslo, Norway, in the early 2000s after seeing a documentary about a group of antiwar protesters, many from the Bay Area, who created a human shield around U.S. bombing targets in Iraq.
She initially landed in San Francisco but eventually found her way to Santa Cruz by volunteering for the local nonprofit Homeless Garden Project. Her volunteer work allowed her to stay in the U.S. for six months at a time before having to go back to Norway and renew her visa. She did this back-and-forth every six months for five years before deciding that her mission in life required additional schooling. In her mid-30s, Switzer enrolled as an undergrad at Cabrillo College and later transferred to UC Santa Cruz to complete a sociology degree.
“Sociology for me is condoned activism,” Switzer says. “It’s really about understanding the systems people live in — systems we create — and how we adhere or not to those systems. I’ve always been an activist, so for me, it was always about activism condoned through a very established structure.”
Faced with having to rebuild in the wake of the CZU fire, that expertise in human systems gave her an advantage in navigating the world of disaster insurance, rebuild permits and government approvals. Today, nearly 2½ years after the fire, only 24 homes have been completely rebuilt and passed final inspection. Switzer’s was the ninth.
Switzer’s work as operations manager with Mountain Community Resources, an arm of the countywide nonprofit Community Bridges, has put her in direct contact with victims of the fire, as both a disaster case manager helping people put one foot in front of the other, and part of the team deciding how to delegate a bank of donation funds to help people finance their recovery.
She was the only one of her coworkers whose home burned down in the fire. She isn’t bragging about her early success, but rather leverages it to build trust with her clients at Mountain Community Resources and prove to them that she is a trusted guide who understands the entire process of fire recovery — both emotional and technical — from salvaging personal items from the smoldering pile of ash to receiving a final signoff from the government on a new home.
“I learned early about temporary power poles vs. permanent power poles, and the size of tanks you need, and just those sort of technicalities that help you through the process more quickly,” Switzer says. “I know how to work the system. And just knowing the people in different departments, knowing who the right person is for different things, it’s very helpful for people.”
Beatrice Easter, a 70-year-old Bonny Doon resident whose house of 35 years burned down in the CZU fire, says Switzer was “instrumental” in helping her get home.
“I’ve dealt with many heartbreaks in my life,” says Easter, whose husband died five years before the fire. “This was very painful. It’s very weird to find yourself all the sudden with just your cat, your car and a few clothes.”
Easter says she was “banging her head against the wall” when she met Switzer. Many of her important documents were lost in the fire and she was having difficulty navigating insurance claims and permits. She says Switzer introduced her to prefabricated homes, a solution that significantly sped up the process of putting a house together. Switzer also helped her in getting appropriate estimates from contractors and approved her application with Mountain Community Resources to finance the final $90,000 of the rebuild after Easter ran out of money.
Easter expects the prefabricated home to be delivered by the end of the year.
“Without Tonje, I would probably have to live on my property in a tent,” Easter says. “To me, she is an angel.”
Switzer’s work with Mountain Community Resources isn’t only CZU-focused. She also leads the coalition of organizations distributing COVID emergency rental assistance. Earlier in the pandemic, when the vaccine was released to the public, she led an effort to set up a helpline to help get people connected to vaccination centers.
Switzer says CZU is still only a small part of what she does, but if she could, she says would work on CZU recovery full time. She knows people today are still stuck and struggling to navigate the rebuilding process.
“It’s my community, so I think it’s important,” Switzer says. “It’s my own experience in this community, and I want to leverage that to the benefit of others.”
Outside of her work with Mountain Community Resources, Switzer is also working to set up a local branch of the national Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster, which will help with coordinating future disaster relief among local and national organizations.
“With wildfires, it’s not a matter of if the next one comes, but when,” Switzer says.