A statute of the Virgin of Guadalupe amid the ashes of a Ben Lomond property destroyed in the CZU fire in 2020.
(Via Laura Leroy)
Opinion from Community Voices

I didn’t get divine inspiration from the CZU fire — until I saw Mother Mary standing in the ashes

Landscaper Laura Leroy got jolted awake during a lightning storm that started the CZU fire on Aug. 16, 2020. She then spent 10 terrifying days wondering if her house was among the 900 that burned. She has read that lighting brings revelation, but she felt nothing divine about the tragedy until she returned to her intact home and started to help her 97-year-old client and friend resuscitate her parched garden and fruit trees. Amid the charred remains, she found something extraordinary.

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On Aug. 16, 2020, I was jolted awake by shocking flashes of light illuminating the sky, followed by the sound of deep rolling thunder. The night air felt hot and tropical and sheets of lightning lit up the sky.

I knew this was not typical summer weather in Santa Cruz. This was a monster of a storm that brought wind, rain, thunder, lightning, fire and finally destruction. As the storm raged through the night, I pulled the sheets over my head, prayed for safety and waited.

There are many interpretations for thunder and lightning. Traditional beliefs attribute them with sudden illumination, the destruction of ignorance, bursts of intuition, revelation, a divine message revealed. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and dream interpreter, believed that lightning liberated the soul.

As I witnessed this blitzkrieg of a lightning storm, no divine message or revelation was bestowed upon me. As I gazed out my window, in disbelief, fear flooded my body like electrical currents. I watched powerful lightning bolts strike through the sky in every direction. I knew this storm would cause severe fires and destruction on our precious and parched California landscape.

No, my soul was not being liberated; it was alarmed and terrified.

The following days brought more news of fires burning in the mountains surrounding Santa Cruz (and all over California). Farms, forests and neighborhoods were burning, and with this came more fire warnings and, later, evacuation orders.

We watched and listened through the hours to see if our area was to be evacuated. Eventually, we were told it was. Our neighborhood is on Sims Road, which is right next to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The CZU fire was burning 6 miles away in the Fall Creek Unit in Felton. It was time to go.

Along with thousands of other neighbors and Santa Cruz residents, we were preparing to leave our homes and take with us our most cherished and essential belongings. I contacted my elderly landscaping clients, who are all in their 90s. They, too, received evacuation orders and were preparing to leave.

As I paced through the house from room to room, I gathered artwork by my children Cyrus and Emery, my husband’s homemade surfboard, a folder containing all of our written family histories, our two kitties and an extra pair of socks.

If our house burns down, this is all we really need to survive. Right?

In the late afternoon, we packed the car and began to drive away from our home.

As we did so, we looked back and gave thanks for this beautiful place that has given us safety and shelter for 17 years. I felt grateful for the ancient oak trees surrounding our home. They have provided shade and beauty and have been a habitat for the colorful and wild birds that frequent our land.

As we took one last look at our home, there was a cacophony of sound in the trees. Birds were perched on the strong oak branches above us, singing in harmony. It felt surreal to walk away from this place, not knowing if we would ever return to our vibrant garden, our cozy beds, our olive and oak trees. As we drove away, I visualized guardian angels surrounding the property and safeguarding and protecting our home with light and love.

Barbara Thomas, a client of landscaper Laura Leroy, paints the Mary statue that stood at the entrance to her Ben Lomond home
Barbara Thomas, a client of landscaper Laura Leroy, paints the Mother Mary statue that stood at the entrance to her Ben Lomond home and, unlike the home, survived the 2020 CZU fire.
(Via Laura Leroy)

Thankfully, unlike others, we had a place to evacuate to — a friend’s cottage in Carmel. On the way to Carmel, our kitties seemed to enjoy the car ride as they sat on Emery’s lap looking out the window in wonderment.

We spent 10 scary days in close quarters with our kitties and each other. We read John Steinbeck novels, practiced yoga, took walks through the beautifully wooded landscape of Carmel and spent lots of money at the local candy shop.

Then, finally, it was time to return home. The fires were still raging up and down California, but our neighborhood in Santa Cruz was safeguarded and spared.

As we resumed our life at home, I noticed — Oh my! — that a family of deer had taken shelter in our backyard. They devoured our heirloom tomatoes, rose bushes, orange and lemon trees, and drank from our water fountain.

I was OK with this. I thought of it as sharing our bounty of the garden with the also tormented and displaced animal kingdom.

Soon after our return home, I was called back to work as a landscaper. One of my clients is a 97-year-old woman artist who lives on Alba Road. Her home in the hills of Ben Lomond burned down in the fires. She lost all of her possessions, including family heirlooms and the art she had collected from her world travels.

Her garden and art studio, adjacent to her home, were miraculously saved.

I started working on the garden by taking gallons of water to her property to fill the bird bath and care for the parched plants and fruit trees.

Upon arriving one day, I noticed something very peculiar.

Although her house had burned down, the many art sculptures that once surrounded her home still stood in a rubble of ash.

This rosy-cheeked gnome, and the apple tree he sat reading under, survived the CZU fire intact.
(Via Laura Leroy)

The Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Francis of Assisi, Buddha, gnomes and angels and other mystical figurines were still standing. They stood as pillars of strength and resilience.

I was especially surprised by all the majestic little gnomes that remained throughout the land. Gnomes are whimsical and mischievous beings who are symbols of good luck. They are considered governors of the earth, magical spirits who protect land and gardens.

I was especially captivated by a colorful gnome sitting under the fruiting apple tree. While the pear trees around him were completely scorched, he sat quietly with rosy painted cheeks and a book in his hand. The apple tree was thriving, without a single bit of fire damage.

The gnomes and saints seemed to be upholding the safety and beauty of the land.

Throughout these challenging pandemic years of political turmoil, unrest and ecological devastation, I have become more aware of the abundance, the beauty and gifts that the Earth has provided.

I guess I have become enlightened.

Either from the lightning storm, the fires or perhaps from the sights of the saints still standing, my soul has, indeed, been liberated, thank you Carl Jung. I have become more grateful for the clear blue skies, fresh oxygen to breathe, the trees, the forest and the precious waters of the Earth.

The CZU fire consumed 911 homes in Santa Cruz County and, as of today, only 36 have been rebuilt. There are still hundreds of people and families waiting to get the green light to rebuild.

As we approach fall 2023, and at the three-year anniversary of the CZU fires, I am hopeful that the hundreds of people who lost their homes can soon rebuild and reside in their homes and on their land.

We all need a spirit of place to dwell in that provides refuge, comfort, a place to belong and call our own.

Laura Leroy is a dancer, world traveler, clothing designer, quilter, chef, gardener and a beginning writer. She loves reading and hiking the wild lands of the world. She is known to be seen hugging trees in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and sometimes she even talks to them. Her sun sign is Capricorn, Aries rising with an Aquarius moon. Read her previous piece for Lookout’s Community Voices here.