An evacuee’s tale: ‘The truth is, being home is hard’

Amber Turpin looks out her kitchen window at her yard and shed that were charred in the CZU Lightning Complex fires.
Amber Turpin looks out her kitchen window at her charred yard. Her Ben Lomond home withstood the CZU Lightning Complex fire, but it sustained heavy smoke damage.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Journalist Amber Turpin was forced from her Ben Lomond home after the wildfires struck. Returning there hasn’t been what she’d thought, but there are finally rays of hope.

It has taken me 75 days to write this story. Or really, I should say that it has taken that long to be ready for this story to unveil itself, through my fingers, onto a keyboard that is resting on my lap sitting on a sooty bench under a towering, ash-covered redwood that’s slated to be removed next month.

If this sounds a bit confusing, I’m with you.

My setting is at once beautiful and serene, yet equally disturbing and sad. It is a mix of dualities that I have come to be familiar with, just part of the deal that comes with a natural disaster.

It’s my home.

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My family and I have returned here, finally, after being evacuated for 75 days due to the CZU Lightning Complex fire that ravaged our mountain neighborhood, halfway up Alba Road in Ben Lomond. Of course, I’m not the only one telling this story, and I’m one of the lucky ones who has a home still standing to return to. That, too, is part of the confusion.

I’m lucky for these walls, for these things still boxed up and waiting to be sorted, for the trees and plants that still remain as part of my view from this bench. But I also feel like I’m drowning in a tidal wave of work, exhausted to the bone, already, from the insurance battles, moving, stress and strife.

The word “evacuated” doesn’t come close to explaining the experience, and neither does “lucky,” so I will try to elaborate.

A burned chair frame is left after the CZU Lightning Complex fire crept on to Amber Turpin's Bon Lomond property.
Only a burned chair frame is left after the CZU Lightning Complex fire crept on to Amber Turpin’s Bon Lomond property. Luckily, the fire stopped four feet away from her house.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The flames at our kitchen

Late in the night on Thursday, Aug. 20, flames roared towards the two-bedroom house that my husband, Dave, built with his two hands 13 years ago. On our property, the fire consumed two sheds, one redwood carport, all of Dave’s tools and many trees, coming within four feet of our kitchen.

It also spared the 10-by-10 adobe building that our predecessor, Margaret, built with her own two hands in 1949. She lived in it by herself, cooking and bathing outside while she tended the one-acre orchard, created art and established herself on this mountain as a one-woman homesteader. My husband and I lived in that adobe while we built the house, brought our baby daughter Hazel home there and shared the space with her for her first five years (not recommended for restful sleep).

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A series of serendipitous and inexplicable events involving the Ben Lomond Fire Department, a good friend, my brother, our neighbor and perhaps the spirit of my Battalion Chief father, kept the fire from burning our house and the adobe.
My brother, a multimedia artist who founded the Burn Cycle Project (ironic, right?), drove straight to our home from Santa Barbara on Thursday night, arriving as the fire roared down from the hillside above and engulfing our redwood carport. We were asleep in our friend’s trailer in Live Oak, awakened by my brother’s phone call and his instruction to “Call the fire department!”

He had passed the Ben Lomond Fire Department on his way up to our house, observing that they were just sitting there, obviously eager to go out and help — but not authorized to do so yet because it was too dangerous (remember the wind and smoke that kept the fire at 99% contained for those first few days?). I googled Ben Lomond Fire Department, and when someone answered, my husband said, “Our house is on fire, and there is a human there who needs help.” (There is more to the story than this, but in the interest of word count, I will stop there.)

Amber Turpin in her wildfire-damaged yard in Santa Cruz County.
Amber Turpin and her family were forced to leave their home for months after wildfire flames badly damaged their Santa Cruz County house.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Squinting at maps

Like many of you reading this, we spent so many days and nights after that, squinting at CalFire maps on our phones and trying to figure out where the damage was, and where it would be going next. In the end, our home wasn’t destroyed, but the smoke damage would force us to leave our house for two-plus months.

Strangely enough, at the beginning, there was almost a honeymoon phase. Dave, our daughter and I were all bonded together, all high on endorphins and community strength. We were at a nice hotel in Aptos, spending our days poolside with friends, eating and drinking and fully submerged in our “evacuation.”

Weeks turned into months, the hotel funds allotted to us by our insurance company were cut off, and the calls with them became less like a reassuring hug and more like a fistfight. When everyone else went back home, returning to normal (albeit still COVID-19) life, we were living our day-to-day in a dorm room in downtown Santa Cruz, provided to us for free by UC Santa Cruz because Dave is an employee there. We tried our best to do our jobs, and my daughter started the school year.

As our home was treated by a smoke-damage restoration company, and every pillow, couch cushion and other soft goods were trucked away to be hyper-dry cleaned, we envisioned our homecoming to be a huge relief after moving six times and wearing the same three outfits, thinking that we would return to a sparkling clean house, and slip right back into life with you all.

Relief still to come

But the relief is still to come. The cleaning company did not put anything away, so every single item we own is in cardboard boxes, double and triple wrapped with plastic and paper. Our furniture is also encased in plastic. The time it took them to do that, and then for us to un-do it, is certainly worth more than the items themselves. It took me 10 minutes to unwrap a bundle of rocks that had been on our daughter’s windowsill. And we still don’t have any of the soft goods, after more than six weeks.

The truth is, being home is hard. It is endless walls of things to get done. And things to figure out. Our internet isn’t working, and we are still walking through ash and debris to get to our front door, waiting for the county to come remove it next month. Our entire spring water system burned, and Dave has to figure out how to rebuild it. We have to buy an entire power pole from PG&E. Everything is stressful.

Amber Turpin and her family returned to their Ben Lomond home after 75 days of being evacuated.
Amber Turpin and her family returned to their Ben Lomond home after 75 days of being evacuated. While their home was spared the flames, they still suffered losses.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

But tonight I am cooking for the first time in months. The daily release that cooking dinner was for me has been absent, and I was almost scared that my hands would forget how. Our pantry is diminished, and our mini fridge outside is subbing in until we get our replacement refrigerator in 2021. But the garden, dried up and untended, gave me some winter squash and cherry tomatoes and parsley. I found a can of chickpeas and was happy to find our spice collection clearly marked in a box.

As I roast, sauté and drizzle, I hear my family’s voices, and see the glow of light from the living room, actually being lived in.

And I’m pretty sure this will feel like home again soon.