Quick Take:

Shareen Bell got spooked by the smell of wildfire that hung in the air around Santa Cruz County last week. It took her back to the CZU fire and reminded her why the organizing work she does at Firewise matters. She is one of the organizing members of the Highland Firewise group on the Westside, and she encourages everyone to get to know their neighbors and create a disaster plan. She explains how and why here.

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Neighbors …

The smoke!

I don’t know about you, but as haze and then a smoky flavor filled our air last week, my body reacted viscerally. I was suddenly sent back to those terrible 2020 days of the CZU Lightning Complex fires, when a firebomb raced toward us.

I remember the ominous dark cloud that suddenly appeared in the north sky rapidly rolling toward our town.

Last week’s tainted air didn’t require my “go bag,” but it did mean I couldn’t do the hike I’d planned. I had to close all my doors and windows. Sitting inside without fresh air, I started remembering.

I remembered my first experience with wildfire, which was in 2017, when I heard about the Santa Rosa fires that burned down 3,000 homes. Then came the shocking fires in Paradise in 2018 that decimated the whole town.

These two fires caught my attention, raised my awareness. But they did not cause me to take action.

“Yes, wildfires are terrifying and destructive, but …” I kept thinking, “my home is safe … right? I live in a coastal town, with lots of fog and marine layers. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

Then came the summer of 2019, when my husband and I were driving home from our annual trek to see family and friends in Oregon and smoke seemed to follow us. The air quality index was terrible, about 200 for 10 hours.

We had made this same trek for 30 years and this had never happened. Even our car filter couldn’t filter out the smoke. The sky was gray, no sun even at noon.

“What’s happening?” I said, as I stopped looking at the new vineyards and lines of freshly planted almond trees along the roadside and focused on the smoke — and the news of the fires that was causing them.

Town after town had news of wildfires in their area.

Although I couldn’t see any of the fires, I certainly smelled the smoke. It was hard to even stop for gas. I didn’t want to get out of the car. (Face masks were not yet widely available, COVID-19 had not yet struck.)

I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of black smoke filling my lungs. Salem, Grants Pass, Ashland, Redding, Vacaville — all burning. So little left.

We were silent, but I kept returning to one thought: When we get back home, I’d better find out what the fire officials in Santa Cruz are planning in case a wildfire happens here.

I started snooping around the Santa Cruz Fire Department website, then looked at the next Santa Cruz City Council agenda. As it turned out — call it fate or luck — the next council agenda was highlighting the fire department’s annual report. Perfect.

I wandered down to the meeting to see what I could find out. Jason Hajduk, then the fire chief, was just beginning his presentation.


Westside Santa Cruz fundraiser/festival event

When: Sunday, Oct. 1, noon-3 p.m.
Where: High Street Community Church, 850 High St., Santa Cruz, front lawn.
Learn: Tips about how to get your “go bag” ready, facts about tree maintenance and meet neighborhood block leads.
More: Visit the Highland Firewise site here, and the national Firewise site here.

The first thing he said was that wildfire chances in Santa Cruz are remote because of the marine layer that blankets us. But then, he went on to describe Firewise, a neighborhood program the National Fire Protection Association launched in 2000 that allows community members to participate in keeping their homes and neighborhoods safe.

This caught my attention.

Organizing neighbors and community-building has been something I’ve been doing my whole life. Why not now? Why not get organized to get more informed, connect with neighbors and possibly prevent disaster?

So, along with a few others I recruited, I launched Highland Firewise in August 2019.

Little did I know that effort would get us a little better prepared for the fireball that hit us almost exactly a year later.

When the CZU Lightning Complex fire hit, the fire marshal immediately called me, since at that time I was the designated Firewise contact for the neighborhood. He said, “Start going around door to door and tell people to get their ‘go-bags’ ready. Be ready for evacuation if needed.”

Because we had organized our Firewise neighborhood, we were ready. We had a list of immediate neighbors and we immediately went into action. Calling, texting and knocking on doors. Making sure everyone was notified and had a safe place to go.

A falling tree took out power around Highland Avenue during the winter
A falling tree took out power around Highland Avenue during the winter, but the Highland Firewise network helped residents navigate the resulting difficulties. Credit: Via Highland Firewise

The fire — really a series of fires started by lightning — destroyed 1,490 buildings and homes in Boulder Creek, Bonny Doon, Swanton and along Empire Grade Road. They came within a mile of our neighborhood, immediately below the UC Santa Cruz campus, which had already been evacuated.

It was terrifying. But less so because of my neighbors. Because we had a plan. Because our Firewise team knew what to do.

Since then, our Firewise organizing team has grown. We now have over 30 “block lead” volunteers tasked with the primary goal of getting to know their neighbors’ (six to eight) houses and setting up an emergency communication network to use in the next emergency.

Santa Cruz continues to have some serious wildfire risks. There are homes near and intermixed with wildland areas, known as wildland-urban interfaces, or WUIs. We have open lands and paths in parks strewn with dried underbrush and many trees we need to pay more attention to.

Over the past five years, Highland Firewise has grown to include 200-plus homes and families from above High Street up to the top of Spring Street and connecting streets to Highland Avenue. This includes the WUI areas below UCSC around the Pogonip and Harvey West Park ravines.

We are all neighbors who come together to learn and teach each other about the best ways to prepare, respond, and communicate during an emergency. I regularly unpack my “go-bag” for groups and describe how I can get myself and my five “go bags” out of the house in under 7 minutes.

We continue to learn, work with the city fire marshal to secure funds to assist with fire preparedness. We are increasing everyone’s awareness of home-hardening and the importance of tree maintenance. The idea is, if a fire ever comes, we will be as proactive as possible, our homes will be as protected as possible, and our neighbors will be safe.

Collectively, we’ve worked with the city arborist to identify dangerous trees along roads and in WUI areas that need to be trimmed and maintained. We’ve raised funds to hire goats to munch away brush along Evergreen Cemetery ravine, which abuts the roadway along lower Highland Avenue.

We’ve educated people on “go bag” preparation, proper tree maintenance, evacuation routes, wind patterns. We’ve put together multiple fire prevention resources on our webpage, for everyone in the community to access. We’ve invited our local fire responders and learned about our county’s CERT (community emergency response team).

We teamed up with other agencies to participate in fundraising for cleanup activities. We’ve located a city green waste container in the neighborhood for cleanup of underbrush.

Shareen Bell launched the Highland Firewise group in her Westside Santa Cruz neighborhood.
Shareen Bell launched the Highland Firewise group in her Westside Santa Cruz neighborhood. Credit: Via Shareen Bell

But most importantly, we’ve gotten to know each other. I can’t say how important and life-affirming this is, particularly at a time when so many people feel isolated and alone.

This connection helped us during the record storms that drenched us last winter and downed a giant pine tree on lower Highland. The tree hit an electric pole and we lost power for a week as crews worked to repair the damage. Since most of us know each other, we shared meals, charged each others’ phones, helped get cars out of garages (hard to do if your garage door is electric), refrigerated medicine and made each other tea.

That week was far less terrible than it could have been — just because we were connected.

Shareen Bell has lived in the Highland neighborhood for over 35 years. She has been an active community member in the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, Women in Business, Your Future Is Our Business, High Street Community Church, Pacific Collegiate School and Highland Firewise. For questions about Firewise, email team@highlandfirewise.org.