How the tragic CZU fire destruction inspired one firefighter to capture it in song

Wes Chiller drew so much inspiration from fighting the CZU Lightning Complex Fire that he wrote songs about it.
(Courtesy Wes Chiller)

THE HERE & NOW: Firefighter and songwriter Wes Chiller turns his experiences in Santa Cruz last summer into songs; Tuck & Patti will not be denied; Felicia Rice, exiled by fire but committed to the arts life in Santa Cruz County

One day last August, a fire engine raced up the coast of California toward Santa Cruz to help confront wildfires threatening to engulf Bonny Doon and the San Lorenzo Valley. Stashed somewhere on that Santa Cruz-bound engine was a ukulele.

The man who owned the uke was aboard that engine too. Orange County-based firefighter Wes Chiller had brought his uke along almost as an afterthought. But during his recovery periods of rest after around-the-clock shifts fighting the CZU fires, it came in handy.

On Friday, Chiller, an accomplished singer/songwriter, will be presenting a livestreamed concert from his home in Southern California. There he will perform a suite of four songs he wrote during his 16-day stint in Santa Cruz County.

He’s recording the songs to be released as an EP titled “Buffalo John & the Rainbow Crew,” a reference to some of the volunteers he met in the San Lorenzo Valley doing everything in their power to save their community.

“I always dreamed of being able to assist on one of those larger incidents,” said Chiller who lives in Capistrano Beach near Dana Point, but who works in the South Bay of Los Angeles County. “The sense of community that we saw (in Santa Cruz County), how everyone was rallying together and supporting us, I mean, I’d never seen that before. What we were doing was dangerous. But it was our job and we were happy to do it. All of us were very moved by the amount of love that emanated from that community.”

He was so moved, in fact, that he began writing in his down-time hours, trying to capture his experiences in the field. The result was songs such as “Golden Tones” and “Buffalo Highway,” which was, he said, “a direct expression of some of the things we were seeing and doing.”

One night, in the deep part of the wee hours, Chiller came across a young man near Boulder Creek who “looked like he was in high school.” He had a couple of buddies who looked even younger and Chiller was amazed at the tenacity and commitment of the young trio, all volunteers, in fighting back the fire.

“I got chills just watching them,” he said. “It was such a becoming-a-man moment for those guys. I had so much respect for them and what they were doing. So I dedicated the album to them. These guys represented everything that I want to be in my life.”

Chiller, a dedicated surfer, has already returned once to Santa Cruz County after the fires, where he surfed the breaks at Pleasure Point for the first time. He hopes to come back again some time in 2021 to perform his songs live, and perhaps get to meet the young men he crossed paths with in the woods, under happier circumstances.

Wes Chiller’s livestreaming concert takes place at 6 p.m. Friday on Facebook Live.

V for Valentine, not for virus

There is at least one musical tradition in Santa Cruz that won’t be derailed by COVID-19.

Every year, for the past 20 years, guitarist Tuck Andress and vocalist Patti Cathcart — known around the world as the jazz duo Tuck & Patti — have spent Valentine’s Day on stage at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center.

This year, despite a suffocating worldwide pandemic, will be no different ... OK, so it’ll be a little different.

Just as in past years, Tuck & Patti will perform live at the Kuumbwa, but for the first time, there will be no in-person audience. The annual show on the evening of Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, will be livestreamed on-line.

Tuck & Patti will still be doing their Valentine's thing.
(Courtesy Tuck & Patti)

For a $30 ticket, fans can sit in their own living rooms and enjoy T&P, performing in real time. The only thing missing is possible transmission of a deadly virus.

Because they’re married and part of the same household “pod” — we’re going to have to explain that to our grandchildren one day — neither Tuck or Patti will have to be masked or socially distanced. Still, just as always, the couple will have to make the trip to Santa Cruz and find their way to the familiar stage at the Kuumbwa, which since the pandemic has functioned more as a soundstage/studio space than a live-music venue.

Reached at their home in Menlo Park, the esteemed twosome said that, late last year, they had done something similar at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage.

“It’s very surreal,” said Patti. “It was the first performance we’ve done (in the pandemic) actually in a hall, and not just sitting on the couch.”
Like many musicians, Tuck & Patti have performed many times over the past 10 months via Zoom from their own homes in a setting more suitable for practice or noodling around than serious performing.

It’s made for a jarring and awkward transition from the constantly touring life they’re used to. They had planned tours in Asia and Europe for 2020, but found themselves instead hanging out in their own living room.

“The first time we did it,” said Patti, “we just used our iPhones. We didn’t even have microphones. I mean, I had no idea that you could sit on your couch at home, looking at an iPhone, playing music with no mic, and really get emotional. It was a trip.”

The Kuumbwa show, like the earlier one at Freight & Salvage, will be a different animal, playing in a familiar setting for performance but without the energy to draw from an in-person audience. “In a way, it’s a good thing,” said Tuck. “It’s good for performers to dig deep, whether there’s an audience or not. It’s kind of analogous of going in the studio. You have to imagine an audience that’s going to hear it. But there’s no real-time feedback. Patti and I will have each other, and we’ll just do our thing.”

Kuumbwa has been busy bringing in musicians to play on its stage for its Monday at Kuumbwa series. But those performances have been recorded, not livestreamed in real time.

Tickets for the show are $30. You can register here.

You’ll have to supply your own wine, and chocolate.

Moving Parts moves away

Felicia Rice is not coming back to Santa Cruz.

Considering that she is a foundational figure in Santa Cruz’s surprisingly rich book-arts movement, her absence — and the fact that is not temporary — is a shock.

Last August, Rice lost her home in Bonny Doon to the catastrophe of the CZU fires. To compound the tragedy, she also lost her home studio, the site of her Moving Parts Press, and dozens of artifacts from her long career as a visual artist in the medium of books, as well as the letter press on which she did her printing.

Today, she lives in the picturesque coastal town of Mendocino, a four-plus-hour drive to the north. And that’s where she and her husband Jim are staying. Probably, for good.

Celebrated book-artist Felicia Rice
Celebrated book-artist Felicia Rice lost almost all of her life’s work in last summer’s devastating Bonny Doon fires. But she’s rebuilding her legacy with her new project honoring Monterey Bay Chicano artists.
(Courtesy Felicia Rice)

But that doesn’t mean that Felicia Rice has left Santa Cruz County emotionally, or even professionally.

Rice is one of the primary forces behind an ambitious new collaboration highlighting the Mexican-American tradition in art in the Monterey Bay area. The project is called “The Califas Legacy Project,” and includes the efforts of several arts organizations all around what they’re calling the “Monterey Bay Crescent,” from UC Santa Cruz to the Monterey Museum of Art.

Rice’s part is the creation and production of an art book, inspired by the late Santa Cruz artist Eduardo Carrillo, and featuring a number of contemporary Chicano/a/x artists/muralists from the region including Amalia Mesa-Bains, Carmen Leon, Yermo Aranda and others.

The book is the centerpiece of the project. And it almost didn’t survive.

Rice was in the process of creating the book when the fires destroyed her home studio. A couple of months earlier, she and her husband Jim were visiting with Betsy Anderson, the curator of the Museo Eduardo Carillo and the co-sponsor of the “Califas” project.

Baine's #BOLO Box

Be On the Lookout for:

• Famed Santa Cruz wildlife photographer Frans Lanting and his wife Chris Eckstrom have made an astonishing video document of last August’s fire. You have to see it to believe it.

• The Museum of Art & History has announced that it will open its doors two days a week as soon as Santa Cruz County gets into the Red Tier.

• The African American Theater Arts Troupe at UC Santa Cruz will marking its 30th anniversary with a celebration of Black theater Feb. 19-21.

• The famous Santa Cruz Clam Chowder Cook-off at the Beach Boardwalk is adapting to the COVID-19 era with a “drive-through” event Feb. 20.

• And, finally, we’re all adults here, so if we want to eat ice cream for breakfast, who’s to stop us? The Penny Ice Creamery is celebrating the annual Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day (a real thing) on Saturday, Feb. 6 with a special dish called Goldilocks a la Mode, a five-grain porridge topped with ice cream, brown sugar, and candied walnuts. It’s happening all day, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at all Penny locations. By the way, there’s no law that says you can’t have ice cream for lunch too.

“We had just finished binding the beautiful original, which is now in the hands of the Stanford Library,” said Rice. “And my husband says, ‘Betsy, you take this. I don’t want to responsible for this in case of, well, you know.

Anderson took the book away from Bonny Doon that day, and it did not perish in the fire like almost everything else in Rice’s studio.

Rice now works from a tiny (9x14 feet) cabin in Mendocino. The home and studio she lost in Bonny Doon wasn’t hers. It was a rental. She can’t afford to return to Santa Cruz and is coming to peace with that reality.

“I think I’m just profoundly exhausted at this point,” she said. “People who know how Energizer-Bunny I’ve been through all this must be going, ‘Oh, it’s finally coming home for her now.’ I’m just so profoundly tired.”

Felicia Rice is spearheading the “Califas” project with events through the next several weeks. And she’s also raising money to rebuild Moving Parts Press. She’s gone physically from the area, but she’s still omnipresent artistically.