We are different people, you and I, two years after the CZU fires

Property damaged by the CZU Complex fire
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Any outdoor space with trees was good, and without trees was not so good, Wallace Baine writes of his thinking before the lightning storm of August 2020 that sparked the blaze that devastated parts of Santa Cruz County. Now, he can’t help but view them differently. And in the terrible aftermath, we’ve learned to honor people’s losses a bit more humanely.

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Several years ago, I was sitting with a neighbor on his hilltop property enjoying a late-afternoon beer. A stand of eucalyptus trees towered behind us, and we started chatting about what might happen if a fire sparked in that spot. The tone was sober, but a bit theatrical, like telling ghost stories on a moonlit night. There was a real fear in our what-if scenarios, but the idea was just abstract enough for all of us to squeeze some entertainment from it.

Today, marking the second anniversary of the most cataclysmic event in recent Santa Cruz County history, I can’t imagine having such a conversation, at least not in the same wouldn’t-that-be-something? manner. “Speak of the devil and he doth appear,” the old maxim goes, and nobody I know speaks about fire these days in anything but terms of dread and respect. We still talk about fire, of course, but now as a way to reassure each other and ourselves, often in terms of contingencies or taking action, sometimes as a way to think out loud about packing up and moving somewhere else.

We are different people, you and I, than we were before the summer of 2020.

Yes, the COVID lockdown changed us, the perversity and chaos of Trump’s last year in office did, too. But we know where the deepest scar lies. It’s a three-letter acronym that meant nothing to us two years ago. Now it carries the weight of lived history: CZU.

Here’s one way I’ve changed, and maybe you, too. I once had an uncomplicated relationship with trees. Any outdoor space with trees was good, and without trees was not so good. I loved the oaks and cottonwoods on my property, and envied the enormous redwood on my neighbor’s. Places like Nisene Marks and Henry Cowell and the UC Santa Cruz campus were destinations for rejuvenation because of one factor above all others: trees.

Now, in the midst of a punishing drought and having walked the roads and trails from Bonny Doon to Big Basin since CZU, I can’t help but view trees differently. A eucalyptus grove fills me with a sense of anxiety and trepidation. If the talk about eucalyptus as an “invasive species” is not more common than it used to be, at least my ears are more attuned to it. The almost childlike love of redwoods I once had means something different now. When you see the trees blackened and denuded in what used to be a lush grove at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, it’s like the moment a child sees its parent cry for the first time. A once-naive adoration gives way to a love borne of respect and empathy.

In mid-August 2020, many in Santa Cruz County were awed by the bizarre weather phenomenon of a thunderstorm without rain. Several months after the fires, I spoke to a community leader, someone with hard experience in emergency situations, and he admitted to feeling a bit wowed by the lightning show in the sky. He thought fleetingly of fire danger, but it wasn’t forefront in his mind. There were a lot of us like that, habituated to anticipate odd weather occurrences by yearslong preoccupation with climate change, but not expecting it to bring immediate apocalypse.

Last week, when the weather forecasts brought word of possible “dry lightning,” the response was quite different. Forget sky-watching or a sense of wonder. We all thought of fire strikes.

Call it the CZU Effect, a kind of PTSD response that brings Santa Cruz County in line with countless other communities in California who’ve been touched by catastrophic fire in recent years. The danger of wildfire is no longer theoretical.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went through the experience of packing our car with boxes of vital belongings when a plume of menacing smoke rose less than two miles from our home. Friends and neighbors across Santa Cruz County, especially in Bonny Doon and the San Lorenzo Valley, have had jarring experiences well beyond that, having evacuated their homes and faced the trauma of waiting in some makeshift holding place for information that was hard to come by.

Lookout checks in on how the recovery effort is going in Santa Cruz County: In a multi-part series, we talk to the folks...

And then there are those who lost it all.

In the two years since CZU, I’ve talked to several people who lost most, if not all, their material belongings in the fire as well as their sense of home in the world, and I’ve heard several more accounts of loss second-hand. I’ve walked with people through the plot of land where their homes once stood. I’ve listened to folks describing family heirlooms, one-of-a-kind works of art, things that they barely remember ever being without, all gone forever. I’ve been with people at the moment when they suddenly remembered, with a stab of pain and frustration, yet another thing they lost in the fire.

The remote Last Chance community was devastated by last summer’s CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

We were lucky in that the loss of life was low in CZU. And survivors of the fire will almost always mention their good fortune on that front, that they lost no loved ones. But nobody in grief wants to hear that things could have been worse, especially from someone who lost nothing but a bit of innocence. And there’s another way in which you and I are different. We’ve learned to honor people’s losses a bit more humanely. Losing a home is about a lot more than just losing a house.

Two years on from CZU, many who lost everything have rebuilt, whether it’s on the same plot of land, a different region, or a different state. There are many success stories and many triumphs. Even the traumatized redwoods are sprouting new growth.

We are different people, you and I, than we were before the summer of 2020. But those who suffered the most catastrophic losses from CZU haven’t merely changed, they’ve transformed, albeit unwillingly and at a huge cost. If the secret to getting through this life with your soul intact is learning to adapt to loss and change, these folks have something to teach the rest of us. And, after the shared experience of 2020, we’re ready to listen.

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