Remains of a CZU house
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wildfires

‘CZU, One Year Later’: The only recovery consistency lies in a community’s selfless nature

Monday marks one year since the day thousands of lives changed forever in Santa Cruz County — the day the magnificent lightning storm that lit up the heavens became the catalyst for 37 straight days of hell. While the financial and volunteer help has been steady, consistent, and even competitive, the need for real recovery remains constant for many.

The Facebook groups, evacuation camps and various grassroots support efforts emerged with the immediate strikeforce precision the firefighting efforts had not. But if you wanted to help out — and who didn’t? — the competition was fierce.

Just when you thought you’d lined up an animal rescue mission, a welfare check or a meal delivery, that task had been scratched off the neatly organized Facebook-disseminated spreadsheet. Trying to get a volunteer shift at one of the evacuation locations? Check back in a week or so — we’ve got tons of volunteers right now.

After much rejection, my daughter and I finally found an assignment — loading up the car with cases of water and Gatorade and delivering them to the field workers in Watsonville dealing with a climate change double whammy of heat and smoke. It felt like a small, massive victory.

This was the kind of CZU Lightning Complex fire hell most of us were dealing with: The scramble to fill the void. The want to do something for the people who were really suffering.

Most of us couldn’t believe what was unfurling in our county amidst an already hellish pandemic moment, but we weren’t really living it like others. We could have no idea what it was like to grab whatever belongings were in reach and jump in the car as flames approached — or to not have time to grab anything.

What’s it like to abandon your home, not knowing whether it will survive? To finally return to the smoldering ashes of everything you once had? To even know where to begin the replacement process?

CZU aftermath
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Not that many of us got to experience that level of helplessness.

Not like so many folks up the north coast who were bumrushed by flames in Davenport, Swanton or Last Chance. Not like those a few miles up Bonny Doon Road who were hunkering down, rounding up heavy machinery, cutting fire lines and fighting for their homesteads — and even their wineries.

Not like around the mountain in Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Brookdale, where similar civilian heroism was holding the line until the scattered fire resources could arrive.

Monday marks one year since the day thousands of lives changed forever in Santa Cruz County — the day the magnificent lightning storm that lit up the heavens became the catalyst for 37 straight days of hell.

CZU aftermath
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Miraculously, only one life was lost. But the rest of the stats are conversely staggering:

  • 928 houses gone.
  • 1,490 structures destroyed.
  • 86,000 acres charred.
  • 65,000 people evacuated.

Total individuals displaced, perhaps never to return? That’s one stat no one can quite quantify at this point.

“I have a list of names I need to call,” says Lynn Robinson, executive director of the non-profit Valley Churches United in Ben Lomond. “So many people who we used to give regular services to are just gone. We don’t see them anymore.”

Many were among those evacuees who, months later, returned to a home and a life forever altered. A rental that would no longer be for rent. A lone house mysteriously still standing amidst a sea of charred rubble. Neighborhoods with obliterated septic systems and dangerously contaminated water.

Smoky forest
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Living in vehicles, reaching out to friends for a couch, asking questions of local officials with no immediate answers, rethinking mountain living — all of that became an immediate reality for thousands.

And for many of them, not much has changed one year later.

Fortunately neither has the want to help.

Writer, biologist, and philosopher Wallace J. Nichols was living a charmed life until the pandemic took away his...

The nucleus of support for much of the aid distributed was the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, which has allocated more than $1.2 million via its fire response grant funds and helped facilitate the Love You Madly virtual concert that has raised more than $110,000 so far.

As CFSCC leader Susan True relayed to me this week, the commitment of case managers, county workers, donors, tradespeople, small business owners — all wanting to help — has been unprecedented. “There’s the guy who volunteered to cut down trees on another guy’s property for 10 weeks in a row,” she said. “There’s the fine folks at Mountain Feed and Seed who brought supplies and continue working to get everything to the folks who need it.”

The fire wreckage
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The work continues because the need continues. And will for many years to come. As one person who lost their home told me this week, “We would’ve never thought we could be a year past the fires and only be this far along with recovery.”

That’s why over the next month Lookout will bring you the stories of this slow recovery process. With the help of government officials, civil engineers and homeowners themselves, we will continue to seek answers for why so few rebuild permits have been issued one year later and what can be done to speed up the recovery process.

Presented by Housing Matters

It takes the whole community working together to help those experiencing homelessness find pathways to permanent...

We will attempt to quantify the anecdotal:

  • The number of renters who have been permanently displaced due to circumstances beyond their control — and how that will change the character of the San Lorenzo Valley.
  • The fate for those in places like Last Chance who were not insured — and whether those who rebuild or remain in the valley can be fully insured moving forward.
  • The number of homeowners who have not submitted rebuild permits, perhaps having waved their personal white flag on the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Sign
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We will bring you the personal stories of those who have decided to leave and those who are more committed to their rugged mountain life than ever, climate change and forestry management challenges be damned.

We want to see and hear and, as best we can, feel what these folks are going through. But we need your help — your stories, your threads of a story, the struggles you hear friends, family or others going through. This county deserves the most complete picture of the recovery process possible and Lookout is here to help bring it into focus.

And lucky me, I’ve found my own next opportunity to help.

Please reach out to me directly at mark@lookoutlocal.com or to the entire newsroom at news@lookoutlocal.com.

Watch Kevin Painchaud’s amazing compilation of photos here...

Get a signed copy of Hindsight 2020

2020 Hindsight — co-produced by Shmuel Thaler and Lookout’s Wallace Baine and Kevin Painchaud — marks the astonishing year that was in Santa Cruz. For a limited time, if you click on the image below and sign up for an annual membership, you can get an authors-signed copy of the keepsake book. Offer applies to new memberships only.

Lookout’s previous CZU coverage

Writer, biologist, and philosopher Wallace J. Nichols was living a charmed life until the pandemic took away his...

Journalist Amber Turpin was forced from her Ben Lomond home after the wildfires struck. Returning there hasn’t been...

Wolf Jett was primed for a busy year of touring pre-pandemic. Then wildfire took their prized studio and performance...

Cal Fire Chief Ian Larkin reflects on what this year’s fire season could have in store — and what it has already thrown...