The Burn of August
By Jackie Hendricks
Lecturer, English Department
For most of us, August is the time to embrace the last gasps of summer fun and savor a few more joyful moments with our families and friends before we begin to prepare for Fall quarter. My own experience of August used to be similar until everything changed on August 16, 2020. In the early hours of that morning, hundreds of dry lightning strikes touched down around California, igniting dozens of wildfires. A few of those small fires combined to become known as the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
Approximately 48 hours after the lightning struck, smoke and ash from the fire burning northwest of Big Basin began to rain down on my home in Boulder Creek.
The raining ash
At the time, we believed the fire was no threat and the smoke would push out over the ocean by the morning. Since my son was just two weeks shy of his first birthday, I thought it would be best to spend the night at my mom’s house in San Jose to escape the smoke. Little did I know, I wouldn’t return for months.
My last glance at town on our way to San Jose
A few hours after arriving at my mom’s house, the fire had charged toward Bonny Doon and Boulder Creek, and the whole San Lorenzo Valley was evacuated. Over the next few days, more than 900 homes would burn down. I was one of the lucky ones - my home was saved by a few men who defied the evacuation orders and stayed behind to fight the fire. Known affectionately as the “Boulder Boys”, these men cut fire lines, removed brush, and doused flames to save as many homes as they could.
Even with all of the efforts of amateur and professional firefighters alike, a third of my neighborhood was lost to the flames, along with major infrastructure supplying water to about half of the town. When I returned to clean up after the evacuation orders were lifted in late September, it was a terrible scene to witness.
This was about 150 feet from my front door.
My neighbors’ property across the street. The fire line cut by the Boulder Boys stopped forward progress.
Both photos from down the street
The return to normal since the fire has been slow. It took about seven months before I could safely bring my family home permanently. Even so, we still deal with debris flow issues whenever it rains. For fire families - the nickname given to those who lost their homes - piles of red tape provided by Santa Cruz County have meant that homes are only starting to be rebuilt now, two years later. Many others have left entirely, with no plans to rebuild.
Even so, the residents of Boulder Creek and the rest of the San Lorenzo Valley have been resilient. We have come together as a community, helping each other recover from the fire’s devastation. Many have processed their grief and trauma through art. We have now had two CZU remembrance events, each featuring poetry and spoken word readings, art installations, photography, and music inspired by the fire. I myself wrote a children’s book, Albert’s Ashes: A Peacock’s Tail, about Boulder Creek’s real-life resident white peacock if he had stayed behind to help fight the fire. The book teaches resilience in the face of adversity, and for local children it has helped them process what happened to our little mountain town. I also contributed to a story and photograph collection, The People Not the Fire: Stories of Resilience.
Yet, even as we continue to recover and move forward, the trauma of August remains. The memory of summer for so many of us is scarred by this experience. But like the redwoods that still stand tall with new green emerging to offset the black char on their trunks, we are strong. We are Boulder Creek Strong. We are SLV Strong.
How Can You Help Communities Affected by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire?
- If you are handy or skilled in a trade and willing to donate your time to help fire families rebuild, find out more about contributing to the Community Barn Raising.
- Purchase Albert’s Ashes: A Peacock’s Tail or The People Not the Fire: Stories of Resilience and 100% of proceeds will be donated to local volunteer fire departments.
- Attend a screening of Mountain Community Theater’s 90-minute film The CZU Fire In Their Own Words. All proceeds will be donated to the Community Foundation’s Fire Recovery Fund.
- Support Big Basin State Park’s rebuilding efforts and volunteer. Find out more here.
- If you are a Santa Cruz County resident, ask what your county supervisor is doing to facilitate rebuilding and support fire families.
- Come to the San Lorenzo Valley (Boulder Creek, Felton, Ben Lomond, Brookdale, and Bonny Doon) and support our local restaurants and businesses.