What NYT omitted about life in the Santa Cruz Mountains: Neighbors with chainsaws

Daniel DeLong loads his kids and his chainsaws into his truck year-round. That's life in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he says.
Daniel DeLong loads his kids and his chainsaws into his truck year-round. That’s life in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he says.
(Via Daniel DeLong)

Daniel DeLong lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where packing a chainsaw is often just part of mountain life. His young daughters are as familiar with the gear – ropes, helmets, wedges, mini sledgehammer – as they are with their own backpacks. Unfortunately, The New York Times reporter who interviewed him last week during the storms, was not. “That reporter omits the most important aspect of rural mountain living: preparation. And having neighbors who look out for each other,” he says.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

“We’re taking the truck!?” my 5-year-old exclaims in wide-eyed amazement as I remove some spiked wedges from her carseat before loading her into it. “Yay! I love the truck!”

“Where should I sit?” my 10-year-old asks, plopping her heavy backpack down onto the pile of gear crowding the front seat: mini sledgehammer, helmet, eye protection, gloves, a rope.

“Right there. Just move all that stuff to the back next to your sister. I’ll put the chainsaws in the bed.”

“Got it. Wait … won’t the saws get wet in the rain?”

“They’ll be fine.”

“OK.” She begins tossing gear into the back seat.

In Soquel Village, Andrew Gaul stacks sandbags for his tenants between storms Jan. 2.


Send us your stories

The Santa Cruz County community has seen an outpouring of help and empathy these past few weeks as we endured historic storms.

We’ve heard of people, neighbors and strangers helping supply sandbags, rescuing pets, arriving with a chainsaw or a warm blanket and a pot of soup. And of officials and public safety people working late, coming up with creative, emergency solutions and rushing in to help each other.

We at Lookout want to mark these moments of kindness and community commitment.

We encourage you to publicly thank those who helped you. Please submit 200 words or fewer to letters@lookoutlocal.com, telling us who showed you kindness, when and how. If you’ve got a photo, please send it along.

We will publish these on an ongoing basis through our letters to the editor section.

“Hey!” Her little sister cries out, indignantly. “Give me my stuffy! That rope is getting it all dirty!”

“Sorry,” I shrug, and hand her the unicorn.

A scrappy, rag-tag family of survivors on the move, preparing to battle their way through the dystopian hellscape of the Zombie Apocalypse? Nah, just a normal dad taking his kids to school on a stormy day in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Look, I get it: Sensational sells. And when the New York Times interviews you for an article about something as major as California’s Stormpocalypse of 2023 — as happened to me last week — you’re lucky if just one or two of the things you say make the final edit.

But c’mon, NYT … quoting me on the scary-sounding potential of my family getting trapped on the mountain by road closures, but leaving out the part where I make it very clear that we — like so many of the residents up here in the SCM —would likely weather such an event in relative safety and even relative comfort? That reporter omits the most important aspect of rural mountain living: preparation. And having neighbors who look out for each other.

What does it mean to be prepared? Well, we’re talking about a backup generator, plenty of fuel, flashlights, extra batteries, some stores of shelf-stable food, a first-aid kit, etc. Pretty much all the stuff you’ll find listed on the FEMA website.

But that’s just a starting point. A minimum.

How about a backup generator to the backup generator (because in survival situations two is one, one is none) a vegetable garden, the ability to preserve and store your own food, an entire pantry of freeze-dried goods, freezers full of meat, etc., for those of us who are, you know, a little more focused (obsessed?) about this sort of thing.

Hmm. Don’t know anybody like that. *Insert eye-roll emoji here*

Oh, and of course, chainsaws. And neighbors who also have chainsaws.

In the Santa Cruz Mountains, chainsaws are just part of life.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, chainsaws are just part of life.
(Via Daniel DeLong)

Sure, it’s a fine line between self-reliance and doing something really dumb (words to live by: All guns are loaded, all snakes are poisonous, all wires are hot) — and attempting to clear trees around downed power lines falls squarely into the “dumb” category.

Just a hard no.

Barricades need to be respected. Roads deemed closed by significant slides and slipouts need to be considered off-limits, and, of course, driving across anything flooded is how people die.

But a smallish tree (“small” being a relative term when it comes to trees in the SCM) or branches down across the road with no wires involved? Hang on, kids, this will take just a minute. You might be a little bit late for school, but you’ll get there.

I’ll never forget the video from several years back showing a tree that fell across both lanes of southbound Highway 17, high up on the hill during the evening commute. Several people in the queue of blocked vehicles just whipped out chainsaws, quickly opened a lane, and in no time, everyone was on their way.

Those are my mountain peeps, right there.

If there is a tree down on a road in the Santa Cruz Mountains that doesn’t require Pacific Gas & Electric to get involved, the chances are better than half that a local with a chainsaw will clear it before any official crews arrive. Open up one lane, anyway.

Up here, we are prepared because we have to be. Our chances of getting cut off from basic services is much greater than for those who dwell in the city or suburbia, where connections to your immediate community, and the reliance thereon, are most of the time pretty much optional.

Not so in the mountains.

Last week, KSBW-TV ran a story about the community of less than a dozen homes cut off at the end of Grizzly Flat Road in Watsonville. Anticipating that a bridge across a small tributary of Corralitos Creek would likely get washed out in the next upcoming atmospheric river, one resident took the preemptive measure of setting up a zip line.

Sure enough, the bridge washed out.

This left an entire small community with people ranging in age from 3 to 80 on the far side of a raging creek with no bridge. But thanks to the zip line, they have a way to ferry supplies (food, fuel in) and people (in or out, as necessary) until the bridge gets replaced, which can’t happen until the water subsides significantly.

And, c’mon … it’s a zip line. How fun is that? When summer arrives, it can take on a whole new purpose.

For people living in the SCM and places like it, having a strong community is not optional. It’s the backbone of the entire thing.

Never was this more clear than in the immediate aftermath of the CZU fire. Now, our community’s response to the atmospheric river train of 2023 is proving this once again.

The SLV Roads Facebook group was born of these storms, and surpassed 3,000 members in less than a week. It’s quickly become a vital resource of constantly updated, reliable information for people attempting to safely navigate our heavily impacted mountain roads.

Here are neighbors helping neighbors by posting in real time which roads are open, which are closed, the best way to get where you need to go, where the hazards are and how to avoid them.

Daniel DeLong is a former first responder who lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains
“For people living in the SCM and places like it, having a strong community is not optional,” Daniel DeLong writes. “It’s the backbone of the entire thing.”
(Via Liz Celeste)

Here’s a tip: If you’ve got a chainsaw and know how to use it, carry it with you.

And before anyone starts pearl-clutching about letting the first responders “just handle it all,” take heed: I was one of those responders, in another life, way back in the long-long ago. So I can declare with absolute certainty that when citizens are prepared, when they act with measured self-reliance in situations where it is safe and responsible to do so, and when they take care of their neighbors to the best of their ability, it leaves first responders free to handle the real emergencies.

This is especially important during dynamic events like the one we just experienced, when plenty of real emergencies are occurring on a daily basis.

Of course, not everyone can safely operate a chainsaw. My elderly neighbor can’t. She doesn’t even own a chainsaw. But I do. Most of my neighbors do, too, and we’ll happily clear the fallen tree blocking her driveway.

We’ll actually enjoy doing it. And that tends to be the kind of person drawn to living in the SCM.

Being prepared is a necessity, but it’s also a lifestyle. In the winter months, we carry chainsaws. In the summer, our pickup trucks sport water tanks and pumps.

And also chainsaws.

We persevere through these events, weather these storms, because we are prepared. And because we are a community; because we have each other.

And chainsaws.

We also have chainsaws.

Daniel DeLong is a retired firefighter and current gopher hunter on the dahlia farm started by his wife, Karla, who has no clear idea about how many chainsaws he actually has. He prefers the Husqvarna brand over Stihl, and doesn’t care what you think. His previous piece for Lookout, “My wife decided to make a dahlia farm on the remains of the CZU fire — she’s crazy, but in a good way,” ran in August.

More from Community Voices