Man on a mission: How Gordon Rudy helped his Boulder Creek neighborhood weather the CZU flames
From sneaking back to his Boulder Creek neighborhood and helping dig a fire line to racing through the woods on his dirt bike with a makeshift fire extinguisher to put out burning stumps, Gordon Rudy played a key role in saving his property and a number of others.
Gordon Rudy stops his green Jeep Wrangler every few dozen yards. The frame of the vehicle shakes as it idles.
The 62-year-old points to his right, at a break in the vegetation. “The line went right through there,” he said, noting the fire line he helped dig out.
Lookout checks in on the recovery effort
In a multi-part series, we talk to the folks who were hit hardest by nature’s wrath last August.
On the left side of the Jeep, the view is full of the orange and black hues of fire-damaged tan oaks, fallen redwoods, and gaping holes where Douglas firs used to be. On the right, the scene is full of dense foliage and newly sprouting ferns 一 an abundance of green.
He puts the Wrangler back in first gear, shaking his head. “I haven’t been up here in months,” he said.
Rudy is driving on a dirt road that lies north of his Boulder Creek property. It’s an old fire road, one he and his brother have continued to maintain for decades now. Last year, it helped break up the encroaching CZU Lightning Complex fire, and the tale of two forests reminds him just how lucky he, his family and his neighborhood were.
“You couldn’t see the horizon of this mountain. You couldn’t see the blue that exists now,” he said pointing to the break in the treeline. “There were about a dozen fires burning, the size of a 30-foot RV.”
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Today, Rudy’s home along West Park Avenue in Boulder Creek is standing because of a few cavalier tactics he and some other residents resorted to.
Rudy recalls evacuating the week of Aug. 16, 2020, when the fire began. He remembers helping load up his sister’s horses and moving them to his brother-in-law’s property in Soquel. He remembers how he and his brother (and neighbor), Chris Rudy, grabbed what they could before retreating to the Santa Cruz Harbor.
“My brother and I have a couple of very valuable vintage racing motorcycles, so we grabbed those out of the living room and took them,” he said.
Within four hours, the Rudys had left their homes and 27 acres behind. And within 48 hours, residents weren’t allowed to return.
‘It looked like a plane crash’
Gordon Rudy grew up racing motorcycles. His father was a biker, and though he tried to keep his children away from the dangers of the sport, neither Gordon nor Chris listened. Gordon Rudy now works as a real estate agent, but that maverick racing spirit is still very much alive. It came to a head last year while he and his then-fiancée were in the Santa Cruz Harbor.
They heard the news that Cal Fire didn’t have enough resources and that the agency was planning to let the fire burn through to nearby Highway 9.
“And so that meant that everything was going to burn in between,” he said.
Feeling he had to do something, Rudy sneaked back into Boulder Creek and to his home. What he saw gave him a shock he still can’t forget.
“It looked like a plane crash,” he said. “You know, like shrapnel everywhere. That’s the first thing that it looks like. It looks like there’s been an explosion because there’s so many fires everywhere. And the fire was just slowly trying to go up the trunks of the trees.”
Chris Rudy, 60, who was also staying at the harbor, found out in the morning that his brother had snuck out. When he tried to follow and get back into town along Bear Creek Road, he said, he was met with a heavy police presence and told to turn around.
“It was pretty scary before he went up there. We all just kept hearing all these wild rumors on social media,” Chris said. “The heat map showed it was close to our home … when he got up there, we kind of knew what was going on [then].”
With the aid of local fire crews and some members of an off-road motorcycle club he calls the “BC Boys” 一 including Jim Sifton, Jim Sunderland, Brian and Pat Garrahan, Jonathan Welborn, Nick Yeager and Vince Salazar 一 Rudy helped build that fire line. It ran through his backyard, up through the mountain range, along his and his brother’s property and down along West Park Avenue near the Boulder Creek Branch Library.
Boulder Creek Fire Protection District Chief Mark Bingham confirmed that local engines worked to contain the fire along Rudy’s property near Old Big Basin Road, and Cal Fire confirmed that outside crews such as Torrance Fire Department were helping within the area.
“They formed their own fire militia and were doing trail-breaking, making a fire line and doing their best to keep the fire from coming down to any houses,” Gordon said. “So they saved several homes up West Park.”
Saving chickens and the neighborhood
Over the next 10 days, Gordon Rudy fought the fire any way he could. That meant mainly putting out stump fires 一 or “zombie fires,” as he called them 一 using his Honda 230 dirt bike and the trails along his family’s property.
He would hop on his motorcycle along with a makeshift fire extinguisher filled with water he had stuffed into a backpack. He’d ride through the dirt trails and put out stump fires wherever he could 一 45 seconds at a time until the water pressure in his extinguisher ran out.
“At 7 a.m. I’d have coffee,” he said. “And what I’d do is just ride the mountain. I’d go to places that I thought needed my attention. And I’d come back and fill up the little water cannon and put it in my backpack.”
He remembers being unable to see the treeline just a tenth of a mile away. The heat of the fire. He relives having trouble breathing through his mask, and remembers taking it off when he could, to catch his breath, despite the dangers.
“You start wishing you could have certain things like, you know, there’s no ice cubes, right? There’s no cold drinks. Everything is just whatever the temperature of the air is,” he said.
Using his motorcycle to put out small fires along the mountain and his 1980 water truck to help keep the houses damp, Rudy was able to save both his home and his brother’s. The fire line was able to save about 25 to 30 homes in the immediate area, with the trail and dirt track aiding as a fire break. He was even able to save a few of his neighbor’s free-range chickens.
“He called me and said, ‘I know that they’re arresting people for getting off your property, but if there’s any way you end up at our place, can you?’” Rudy said. “So I’d get up really early in the morning and hop in my truck and I’d banzai out to my friend’s house … I did that every three days or so.”
Looking back now, Chris jokes that his brother can be “impetuous” at times. And while Chris might still be a bit sour his brother put himself in danger without telling him first, he’s thankful Gordon took that risk.
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“My entire neighborhood is grateful he went,” Chris said. “He gave everyone updates and saved their homes.”
On a Wednesday evening last month, Gordon Rudy toured his property: Green grass is returning, a few paces away from what’s left of the fire line’s burn scar. Rudy said he was never unappreciative of his home and the life he has, but looking at the stark differences along either side of that trail, he admits he’s really happy to still be able to enjoy it.
And he cracks a daredevil smile one more time: “I don’t think of myself as some kind of hero. I was just in the right place at the right time.”