‘A really scary day’: August wounds still raw, winter wildfires and winds spark new fears

Five months after the CZU Lightning Complex Fire torched the Santa Cruz Mountains, the smell of smoke once again permeated the county on Tuesday. For many, it brought back visceral fears that have yet to be fully processed.

No one witnessed the PTSD-inducing effects of this week’s wildfire scare quite like Susan True.

Just as fires were igniting countywide Tuesday as a result of a winter wind storm, the CEO of Community Foundation Santa Cruz County was taking part in a support group for survivors of the CZU Lightning Complex Fires.

True, the person who just months earlier had helped distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief funds to those who saw their homes destroyed — or saw themselves, loved ones and animals displaced — was now witnessing the raw emotion of those turbulent months bubble up again right before her eyes.

“Tuesday was a really scary day,” True said. “You could see just the fear and the thought of going through that again.”

Many of those people had watched smoke billow above their rooftops only months ago — some still affected to the point where they can’t get out of bed, still grappling with depression.

It’s only been five months, barely enough time for survivors to process the loss, much less be ready for more serious fires to come. “For fire survivors, they have to think about the day- to-day right now,” she said.

In the wake of this week’s blazes and gusts, Lookout talked to some of those affected and are working to persevere. These are their stories.

Still something to defend

Musician Jon Payne lost his house in Boulder Creek to last August’s fires. He was on the site where his house once stood on Tuesday when fire again raged in Boulder Creek. From his vantage point, he had a clear line of sight of the smoke coming from China Grade.

“I got activated,” he said. “It kinda energized me.”

Jon Payne surveys the charred remains outside his Boulder Creek home.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

There is still a small cabin on the grounds, so there was still something to defend, despite that fact Payne had lost his main house. He said that living in Boulder Creek for years, he had a lot of experience with fire. But the 2020 fires changed his perspective.

“In the past I would see fires or plumes and think, ‘Aw, no big deal. They got this under control.’ (This time), the thought that it could spiral into something bigger was immediately in the forefront of my mind.”

As for the oh-no-not-again anxiety of facing fire so soon after his devastating loss, Payne said he has experience working in the mental-health field — and he can employ techniques to deal with anxiety. Ironically, it wasn’t the fires that spiked his anxiety this time.

“I was actually more terrified of the (wind) storm the night before. My house before was sunny and out in the open. Where I’m staying now in Boulder Creek is under the thick canopy (of redwoods). All night long, branches are hitting the roof, and that was provoking a lot more anxiety than the fire. I kept thinking some branch was going to spear me in my sleep.”

‘We’re gonna do it; let’s keep going’

Fitness trainer Natalia Rivera-Espana is used to pushing through adversity. Which is good, because over the last year she’s faced her fair share.

First, it was the onset of the pandemic. She met that challenge head on, opening an outdoor-only gym, GOAT Santa Cruz, in a parking lot on 17th Avenue in Live Oak.

Gusty winds turned a workout zone into a disaster zone this week.
(Courtesy Natalia Rivera-Espana)

Next — about a week after the gym’s August opening — smoke from the CZU fire forced her to close for health reasons. Smoke eventually cleared, and things ran relatively smoothly for a few months.

Then came this week’s extreme winds.

As of Monday, the workout space was kept protected from the elements by three large tents bolted to the ground (with spin bikes, weights and other equipment kept in storage containers). Knowing winds were coming, Rivera-Espana gave the tents some additional anchoring.

“It was crazy,” she said of the winds that pummeled the county that night. “Even our house was shaking. I was prepared for the worst but hopeful that maybe they stood up. But sure enough, we got there early at sunrise the next day — and it was still windy, but the tents were destroyed.”

Classes were back up and running again by Wednesday, and Rivera-Espana is already planning how to come back stronger than ever — this time, with even more heavy-duty covering.

“I kind of don’t want to say what’s next,” she joked. “But I think that every time we’ve come across some sort of hurdle, the participants that come to GOAT are so supportive, so encouraging, that it really truly just gives me the inspiration to say, OK, we’re gonna do it. Let’s keep going.”

‘I kinda knew I always wanted to do that’

One of the Red Cross volunteers on hand at the Corralitos Community Church helping those evacuated from the fire on Nunes Road was Tom Wiley, who represents a family legacy of service to the community in South County. One of those fighting that fire was his son Jeff Wiley.

The Wiley boys, Tom and Jeff.
The Wileys
(Courtesy the Wiley family)

A fire captain with the Watsonville Fire Department for 23 years, Tom retired in 2003 and has since occupied himself in a variety of volunteer commitments, including working in disaster services for the Red Cross.

His two children, Jeff and Jennifer, saw their dad be roused from bed at all hours of the morning back when he was an arson investigator for WFD. It became a family tradition: Jeff went on to work as a firefighter and paramedic and now works for the Aptos-La Selva Beach Fire District, and Jennifer is a cardiac nurse in Monterey. Both are regularly called on to deal with middle-of-the-night emergencies.

“Yeah, I got to be around the firehouse a lot as a kid,” said Jeff Wiley who has also worked as an EMT/ambulance driver. “I kinda knew I always wanted to do that.”

“I’m proud of them both,” said Tom of his son and daughter. “It’s great to see how proud they are of the job they’re doing right now, with Jeff after a tough fire and Jen with a rough case of a patient who pulled through. You can see the look on their faces when they get those kinds of calls. It’s special.”

Surprised ‘at how strong the visceral response was’

When Antonia Bradford, 43, woke up in her Boulder Creek rental home on Tuesday, she had lost power and internet access. She noticed how windy it was — strong enough gusts to knock things down outside her house — but it wasn’t until she got into town that she heard the news.

Fires had broken out overnight around Santa Cruz County. As she sat in her car while her husband stopped at a hardware store, she started seeing the notifications about the fires. Without even realizing it, Bradford’s heart rate sped up. She started crying, panicking.

The Bradford family
(Courtesy Antonia Bradford)

That moment, noticing the changes in the air and quality of the light, took her back to Aug. 18, the last day Bradford, her husband and their five children would be in their Boulder Creek house. It burned down, along with dozens of other homes in her neighborhood, during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Fortunately for Bradford, her family’s rental home wasn’t in danger this time around. But this week has reminded her of something a therapist told her as she’s worked through the layers of her loss from over the summer: “Grief unlocks grief.”

“I hate using the word ‘triggering’ because it’s an overused word and people mock it, but I know myself and other people” have expressed a similar feeling of fear through a 1,500-person social media support group Bradford created two days after last year’s fires. Members of the online group, all people who lost their homes, shared this week their feelings of anxiety at the thought of enduring more trauma.

The calm winter season was supposed to serve as a kind of psychological buffer, allowing the time to heal, repair and prepare for the peak fire season later in the year.

Tuesday took that away.

“I was surprised at how strong the visceral response was,” Bradford said. “It reminds you that there’s still stuff to pull out. . . . I know it’s going to be a long road, especially the complicated nature of losing your home.”

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