Three CZU Fire Survivors Tell Their Stories

by | Dec 6, 2022 | 2022 Twelve Days of Thanks and Giving, Leaders, News, Research, Wildfire


On the third day of Thanks and Giving, we give to you … three stories from people who had to flee their homes because of wildfire.

Cindy S. (not her real name) was at the grocery store when she received word that the Glass Fire had grown explosively and that she needed to get out immediately. She raced home, got her cat and two dogs into the car, and left. An hour later, the house was gone, along with all the family possessions.

We met Cindy at the 2022 Cloverdale Fire & Earthquake Safety Expo where she related her experience to us with pain in her eyes, tears in her voice, and gratitude in her heart that she, her family, her neighbors, and their pets had gotten out alive. We were there asking people to imagine what they would do if they had to evacuate at that moment. We also listened to many stories of real experiences, fortunately, few as dramatic as Cindy’s.

Learning from people who have experienced disaster is part of the research we do at Creative Crisis Leadership. We use what we learn to ensure that our immersive learning experiences are realistic, present participants with challenges that reflect real priorities, and create space for emotional realities.

Last year, we shared some insights on how wildfire affects everyone. Today, we share the stories of three people who were directly affected by the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires in California.

About the fire

CZU Lightning Complex fire perimeter.

On Sunday Aug 16 2020, lightning started numerous fires on the Western slopes of the Santa Cruz mountains. Early Wednesday, winds came up, and what became known as the CZU Lightning Complex exploded. By the time the fires were fully contained, a month later on Sep 22, they had burned 86,509 acres, destroyed 1490 structures, ravaged redwoods and historic buildings in Butano and Big Basin state parks, and caused one fatality.

Judy D., Judy S. and Barbara all live in the Santa Cruz mountains and had to evacuate. Here are their experiences in their own words.

Judy D.

Photo by John Pilge.

… we never thought we’d be experiencing fire, like, fire season was always, like, up north and east of here, right? You know, we live in a redwood forest. We live in a valley, six miles from the coast. So we thought that, you know, this isn’t going to happen here. And, over the last several years, like 2018, 2019, there’d be a small fire would pop up somewhere in the valley. It’s pretty heavily forested, but there’s also, 26,000, 30,000 people that live in these communities. And, as soon as a fire would pop up, Calfire was on it, or the local fire and volunteer fire departments were on it, and it would be out. So we never really thought that it would happen to us.

And of course, it started up a little bit further north of Big Basin and then, two days later, it was like, “Oh, no, there’s a fire.” We’re watching the fire, thinking, “They’ll get it out. They’ll get it out.” And as it kept creeping closer to us … we really didn’t think we were going to be evacuated. And then the next thing we knew is our friends in Boulder Creek are being evacuated. … we knew basically what we had to get ready. And we’re working with all of our neighbors. And all of our neighbors are talking.

My husband spent the time doing what we’ve learned from the fire departments and from all the videos about going around and hardening the outside of the home. Taking away the chairs, and we loaded up, … most of what was in the freezer we took with us. The power was still on when we evacuated. … and he took all of our little portable propane tanks, like for the grill and stuff like that, and put them out at the end of the driveway. I think we had four. And we had gas cans for a generator. So he put all the gas cans and propane cans out at the end of the driveway, which is what the fire department asked you to do. Turned off our propane tank.

It was a very orderly evacuation when they finally said, “It’s time to evacuate.” … we left when there was a warning. It was, it was terrifying. I mean, it was! … And you know, we’re thinking, “Ah, we’ll be gone a couple days.” [Laughs] “No, it’s not gonna be long.” And — my heart is just racing thinking about all this again — And we left, we backed out, and left. it was like, “Oh,” like, you back out of your driveway. And, you look at your house and say, “That’s probably it. Probably not gonna be here when I come back.” Because at that point, the fire was starting to come over the hill from Bonnie Doon. And so we just said goodbye and left.

We were very, very fortunate in that we had our in-laws to go to. You know, I have friends that were everywhere, from in their camper, and went down to Morro Bay. The hotels immediately all filled up in Santa Cruz, people could not find spaces to stay. And I think this is something that really needs to be done, is for people to kind of think through, where are they going to go if they’re evacuated? Because we’d never thought about it. And luckily we had relatives. But, you know, a couple friends got hotels, but I knew several people who were going from camp … campgrounds immediately filled up — you know, we’re in a place with a lot of campgrounds — they filled up with the motorhomes. But then all the ones up here were closed, the ones down in Santa Cruz on the beach were filled up immediately. So it took a day or two for people to find places to stay.

And then, as I said, we all thought it would be a couple days. And it was just being glued to the reports, glued to Calfire, glued to Twitter, and watching as the fire was moving in.

When we came back, we still didn’t have power for a week after we came back … The streets and the roads were lined with freezers and refrigerators that were just, you know, it’s like somebody died in there. It’s disgusting. It’s absolutely disgusting.

Judy S.

Photo by Susanne Jul

It was a real surprise that the fire came so close, because it moved fast. You know we had that thunder and lightning storm. And then three days later, two days later, we were evacuating, and it was raining ash.

I left before we got orders. Because, there was so much smoke and it was 85 degrees in the house. I couldn’t open the doors and windows. I don’t have air conditioning. So it didn’t make any sense to stay. And it looked like we were going to have to evacuate. So, you know, it made sense to go as soon as I could.

We’ve had to evacuate before. It actually was, “Okay, we’re going to evacuate. We’ll be gone for a few days and then we’ll be back.” But I didn’t come back for five weeks. I left on the 18th of August and I was allowed to come back on the fifth of September. And that was because of evacuation warnings and orders. They didn’t lift the evacuation order because there was still so many hot spots. They just didn’t want people around.

There was so much uncertainty during the evacuation. … There were three times during the fire that I thought [the house was gone], when we were evacuated. … this person has a camera on their house, and so he was watching the fire from the camera. And then the camera went out. And there was certainty — because the camera went out — that the fire had consumed his home and the creek, which meant it was going to come up the whole mountain here. That turned out not to be true. So, you know, there was good information, there was crappy information, you know. And a lot of that “Oh my god, my house is gone!” came from some of that. You know, should I be listening to this? What’s real? It’s just hard to know.

My neighborhood will never be the same. Because of it. And I, you know, we used to have a quiet, sweet little neighborhood and it’s not like that anymore. … there’s about 24 houses and seven of them burned in the fire. The fire was right across from my driveway road, it was on the other side of it.

I’ve gone through grief at the loss of my neighborhood and gratitude that my home is still here. … People are gone. My dearest neighbors don’t live here anymore. They live in Felton. People whose children I knew since they were born. And, just the character, the neighborhood changes, because some of the characters are gone.

So that’s what I’m noticing from people, is just the trauma. People, you know, people say, “Are you going to rebuild?” And one day it’s “Yes,” one day it’s “No,” one day it’s “Yes,” one day it’s “No.” And so it’s over a year later, and nobody has started to rebuild in my neighborhood.


Barbara’s house

It was the day before, when I started hearing that there were fires getting closer. And I started thinking, “Okay, what do we actually really need?” Packing the car took us an hour, half hour, an hour, something like that. We might have, I think we packed up the night before, had the car ready to go. And then headed out, you know, midday the next day.

I realized, very quickly, that there was very little I cared enough about that I needed to take it. You know, I didn’t care about pictures, somebody else has the pictures. The only things I cared about were our paintings. Because every one was important to me. And so those were what we packed up. And then we grabbed a little bit of clothes. And that was about it.

I was expecting huge long lines of cars leaving the area? Nothing. It was just really smooth and easy. No traffic problems, no nothing. … I think it was really because people were leaving at different times. What is it? There’s 20-odd thousand people in the valley, three ways out. … We left before they actually placed the orders. And I think people were already leaving before that.

My son actually was concerned about us. And so, you know, we talked for a moment, I get a call an hour later, and he said, “Okay, I have booked you into this place on the beach, you can work there, you got the internet, you can do whatever you need to do.” And, so, we went there, … then I felt, “Oh my god, I can’t do this!” That was so dismal. I really did not want to have to stay in that [little hotel] for a couple of weeks. … We ended up going a little further down the coast of Monterey, to a place where my daughter was evacuated to. So we were next door to each other there. We then get a call from my brother saying, “Hey, my neighbor is just opening up his place. He’s got two rooms for you guys.” I’m ashamed to admit that it felt like a vacation that part, because my daughter had a big place, right? And we had a studio right next to it. My brother’s across the street, the rock in Morro Bay is across from us. And we hung out there for two weeks.

I had already come to terms with the idea that I might well lose my home of 38 years, you know? And, yeah, it was okay. I mean, I just thought about it, it is “Okay, a new start.” You know, and, but I also realized, “Ah, yeah! I’m okay with this, but I don’t want to! I don’t want to lose my home.”

It was the red sky that first day, when we came back. And it looked like a moonscape. It was the strangest thing. How, you know, the whole sky was red, it was orange. I’ve never seen anything like that. And, the smells, that burnt smell. And that strange, eerie, moonscape feel to all of it.

About a 1000 foot from our house. … as the crow flies. … When we got back, I was surprised how much burnt debris there was, you know, in the yard and, and everywhere. And the insurance company did send somebody out. And I’m saying, “I don’t think you need to come out. There’s no damage here.” And the guy went around with his white glove, or whatever he did. And said, “No, you got all this, this needs to be …,” whatever, handed us a bunch of money.

This has been how long ago? Oh, it’s exactly a year. Yeah. And then, goodness, about three months ago, we went, just walking with some friends up near our house, but from their property — they were much closer to it. And you saw all this new growth. So the whole forest was opened up, you know, so it was really light. And there were all these little things coming up. And it was, you really understood how this was a part of the cycle. And we’d stopped it for too long. And that’s why we’re seeing such a fierce reaction. But it truly is beautiful right now.

In terms of rebuilding, what people are going through is just a tremendous amount of time to get permits in our area. I don’t know of anybody who has started rebuilding yet. And that’s a year later, and they haven’t been able to get the permits to rebuild.

Read what Barbara had to say about home preparation in this 2021 Wildfire Advent post. For a moving reflection on what it meant to lose a house to the CZU fire, we highly recommend Dear Wild Child: You Carry Your Home Inside You by Wallace J. Nichols and Wallace Grayce Nichols.

To celebrate the thanks of Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday, today, we give a very special thanks to the many individuals who have opened their hearts and shared their disaster stories with us: Your stories help to empower other communities!


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