Bonny Doon is rising up from the CZU ashes with art – come visit 23 artists’ studios this weekend
Three years after the devastating CZU fire that destroyed 400 homes, the artists of Bonny Doon are opening their studios to the public. Thirty artists, including the author, mixed-media artist Linda Levy, who has lived in Bonny Doon for 40 years. Here, Levy remembers the devastation of the fire, “those terrible August days,” discusses her frustration over the minimal rebuilds and celebrates her community, which she insists is rising from the ashes.
It has been three years since the CZU fires ripped through the heart of my Bonny Doon mountain community, leaving a stark black and white landscape behind.
I can still see the acres of ash broken by charred black remnants of my once verdant neighborhood forest.
Over 400 homes in Bonny Doon were left in ruins, and rebuilding has proven to be almost impossible: few destroyed homes have been rebuilt and many people are still struggling with rebuilding issues.
The rising cost of lumber and plumbing supplies. The scarcity of good contractors (local or not). The torturous path of obtaining building permits. The process often seems insurmountable.
And yet, our community continues to rise from those ashes.
Take Sam Clarkson, potter extraordinaire, who mines local clay for his sculptural creations. He lost his home and studio and is struggling to rebuild. He has created a labyrinth using fire-damaged kiln bricks to mark where his home once stood. Watercolorist Alison Parham is one of the few with a rebuilt studio, thanks to her husband, who worked for Big Creek Lumber for many years and knows how to get building done fast.
Sam and Alison and I – along with 27 other Bonny Doon artists – will open our studios for free from 11 a.m to 5 p.m. on July 29 and 30. It’s the second time we have banded together to do this since the fire.
We are three years out, but it’s still meaningful to be inviting the public into our community. Not to witness our sorrow, but to celebrate our art.
Those terrible August days will forever remain seared into me.
I remember how at 12:30 a.m. on August 20, car horns started blasting. Reverse 911 calls announced immediate evacuation orders.
Our little neighborhood road association had previously incorporated fire safety measures: fire-proofing homes, clearing brush along our roads, helping each other learn what to do in the event of a fire and evacuation. However prepared many of us were, the reality and panic of being woken up and needing to flee is overwhelming.
Smoke-filled air and the glow from flames ignites your pulse. It makes you instantly wired. The shock is visceral and I shiver just remembering it.
It becomes a race to grab what is important in your life – catching pets – loading livestock into trailers – what about the chickens? Let alone packing your emergency supplies/go bags into your vehicle(s), gathering important documents and your needed prescription drugs
You’re awake, but it feels like a bad dream.
We were lucky. We had good friends in Santa Cruz who took us (including our pets) into their home – despite the COVID-19 orders to isolate. But once you are away from your home, you don’t know what’s happening to it. Safely away, there is very little news; you get “reports” of major devastation, but you can’t know what is happening to your specific neighborhood.
We saw smoke drift into the City of Santa Cruz, darkening the sky, producing a “red” sun. No one ventured outside, even wearing a mask. We stayed inside, trying to “act normal” but filled with anxiety.
“Fire burning out of control!” “0% contained!” Headlines blared, keeping us jittery.
Could it spread to the City of Santa Cruz? Is our home of 40 years still there? Are our neighbors and friends okay?
We had people taking care of us, very good care, in fact. But we were not in our own home. We didn’t even know if we still had a home.
That is terrifying. Destabilizing.
It was 10 weeks before we could even visit our home. While it was still standing, there was evidence of burning all around, and heavy smoke damage inside.
It was another month before we could safely return to our home. Fortunately, my studio was tightly “buttoned up”, and had no smoke damage – my artwork was intact.
Our little Westdale neighborhood – and my art – survived the devastation because of the heroic efforts of our local neighbors who remained behind to protect our properties and fight the fire. They used a truck with a large water tank and pump to extinguish burning trees, embers floating in and smoldering. They used generators to run well pumps to resupply water. They engaged roof-top sprinklers.
It was two and a half days before Cal Fire made it to our area and their main task was keeping the elementary school from burning. Local heroes abounded.
At a recent neighborhood Fire Safe road-work “party” and potluck meal, we relived our experiences, the shared emotions and lessons learned. While we all sport “Bonny Doon Strong” decals, most residents still suffer from PTSD – a whiff of smoke causes high anxiety.
But we are emerging. You will see the proof this weekend, if you come join us. Come and be inspired by who we are now and what we have survived.
The year following the fire, our roads teemed with lookie-loos, people driven by that odd curiosity to “see” the devastation. There were also people looking for “souvenirs” – looters looking for charred bits, remains of lives and trees. Even commercial wood scavengers were cutting down redwood trees without property owners’ permission, which hurt.
For a while, I changed my routes into town so I could pass through the least amount of visual destruction. Driving along Empire Grade and down Alba Road used to bring silent tears; it was so overwhelmingly charred.
Today, the mountains are filled with Yerba Santa, a native plant, abundantly covering much of the fire-scorched earth. And joyfully, many of the fire-scarred redwoods sport new growth.
The beautiful nature of the Santa Cruz Mountains has always attracted imaginative energies, from great writers like Robert Heinlein, as well as musicians and gifted artists – Bonny Doon is a home that inspires creative expressions.
This weekend, that spirit will be on display. I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon and find inspiration.
Linda A. Levy is a fourth-generation Californian artist who has lived in Bonny Doon for 40 years. Linda worked as a research scientist in the aerospace industry for over 25 years while always keeping art a part of her life. She is an arts advocate, the former executive director for the Santa Cruz Mountains Art Center and has served on the board of directors for the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County and as a county arts commissioner. Now retired, she still creates artworks in various mediums (digital, ceramic, 3-D constructions/mixed media, charcoal, pen & inks, watercolors.) She is married to a supportive husband, Stephen King (who does not write horror novels).