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One Year Removed, Residents Remember CZU Fires

Feelings of past grief and hope for the future were on full display on Aug. 18 at the CZU Fire Remembrance gathering at the Brookdale Lodge.

Handmade art on display at the CZU Fire Remembrance event held at the Brookdale Lodge on Aug. 18. PHOTO: Christina Wise

San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley neighbors, think back to where you were a year ago today. If you lived in Boulder Creek, Brookdale, Ben Lomond, Felton, Zayante, Lompico, Bonny Doon or Scotts Valley, you had been evacuated from your home, courtesy of the CZU Lightning Complex fires. You’d no doubt rushed to gather items of importance—pets, medications and treasured irreplaceable heirlooms. Your vehicle stuffed full, as you left the approaching fire behind, you were making arrangements for where to head to wait out the fire. Hotel rooms in Santa Cruz quickly filled as worried residents searched for a place to put their children to sleep, and take stock of the moment.

After weeks of mandatory evacuations, some of you came back to homes untouched; some came back to smoke damage, rotten refrigerators and charred fences. Others returned to find nothing left but the chimney and some remnants of a home that was no longer recognizable. Cars burnt, propane tanks exploded and trees singed dropping charred leaves onto the remains of neighborhoods.

Feelings of past grief and hope for the future were on full display on Aug. 18 at the CZU Fire Remembrance gathering at the Brookdale Lodge. Hundreds of locals gathered that evening in air filled with haze from the Dixie and Caldor fires in Northern California, bringing a stark reminder of what had occurred in the Santa Cruz Mountains just one year prior. Neighbors communed over barbecued chicken and stiff drinks as people spoke, bands played and the memories and sorrow poured into the cool evening air. Vendors and support services displayed tables full of resources—quilts, masks and copies of local newspapers from the fire’s onset. On this evening, the Brookdale Lodge was transformed into a sacred space for the community to grieve and remember.

Warm Embrace

Lori Camner and Barbara Lockwood were seated at a table draped with beautiful, handmade quilts. 

The two women had aligned with a third, Helen Klee, and started the CZU Lighting Fire Quilts donation and distribution shortly after the flames touched down in the mountains. 

“We were affected by the fires that came through our community,” said Camner. 

Lockwood is an SLV resident. Camner is not, but she felt compelled to offer a hand to local residents. 

“Because we’re quilters, we thought it would be helpful to replace something that had been lost, and we put a small ad in one of the national quilt newsletters,” she said. “Within weeks, we had people from all over the country donating their quilts to our effort. It wasn’t as though three of us got together and made nearly 1,000 quilts; we essentially became a distribution center to facilitate getting the quilts into the hands of folks that needed them.”

Lockwood and Klee worked to authenticate the names and addresses of fire victims, and invited them to register for a quilt. 

“We know we didn’t reach everyone that was evacuated,” said Camner. “Many people have not yet returned to the area, and may never come back.” 

So what will become of the remaining inventory? 

“We’re considering packing up what’s left and delivering our quilts to those who have been impacted by the Dixie and Caldor fires,” Cramer added. 

Lockwood said about 30% of the quilts came from local area quilters. The other 70% came from quilters in Nebraska or New Mexico or Illinois, she added.

“That became a genuine gift of love from complete strangers. It really reflects the common goodness that people have within themselves,” she said. “When we delivered the quilts, recipients would wrap themselves up in them and start crying. It was a truly emotional project for us all.”

A Starry Soul

“It’s so nice to see everyone come together to commemorate this special day,” Windy Rhoads said before wiping the tears from her eyes as she reflected on her own personal loss. “It’s a tough day for a lot of us.” 

Her self-proclaimed godfather, Tad Jones, was a resident of Last Chance, a rugged and isolated community at the intersection of the Monterey Bay and the redwood forest. He also was the only recorded fatality from the CZU fires. 

“Whenever someone dies in my life, I always think of their soul going up into starry skies, and their soul becomes another star,” she said. “Tad Jones, the one casualty from the fire, was my friend and my godfather. I’m thankful for this opportunity to remember him on this day.”

Rhoads was raised in Ben Lomond and met Jones when she was just a toddler. The child of a single mom, Rhoads found comfort in Jones’ care while her mom worked nights and slept during the day. Jones had never been married or had children, but Rhoads points to a “natural affinity” between the two of them. Jones took a vow of silence upon moving to Last Chance, and only started speaking just a few years before his death. 

“I didn’t mind about the silence. We exchanged letters, and he gave me advice like a father would. He took me on like a second dad, and we built a strong bond,” she said. “I didn’t see him all the time; it had been almost a year since I saw him before he died. We were supposed to meet for lunch just a few months before the fire; I had to cancel, and of course, I regret that deeply.

“When I saw the lightning strikes and the fire starting, I immediately started worrying about him. I posted his picture on Facebook and asked if anyone had seen him. No one responded. I finally contacted the sheriff’s office and they put out a missing person’s report for him. Within a few days, I heard from another Last Chance resident who told me he didn’t make it out.” Jones had tried to escape in a van he kept on the property, but the heat overtook the vehicle, and Jones perished in the fire. “Sometimes he was a stubborn old fool, but I loved him,” she said.

Tale of Strength

Boulder Creek isn’t just home to Joe’s Bar and Scopazzi’s. There’s a famous “resident” that lives in the area and managed to escape the flames: Albert the White Peacock. (Some would assume that Albert is albino, but that’s not the case. White peafowl have a genetic mutation called leucism, which prevents pigment from being deposited into their feathers, resulting in white plumage.) 

Local author Jacqueline Hendricks found inspiration in Albert’s resilience; she put pen to paper and wrote the delightful Albert’s Ashes: A Peacock’s Tale. Hendricks teamed up with Boulder Creek artist Linda Curtis for the illustrations, and the book is on its way to the publisher for a fall release.

“I didn’t lose my home in the fire,” Hendricks said, “but I live in the Acorns (a tract of homes just north of downtown Boulder Creek that suffered massive losses), and the fire got way too close for comfort. We were out of our home until April. We returned for a short time during the holidays of 2020, but the USGS (United States Geological Survey) was examining our property in terms of impending mudslides at that time. They looked at the surroundings and told me that it was like having a loaded gun pointed at us.”

Hendricks and her young son went to Illinois for a few months, but she’s since returned home. 

“I was inspired to write this book because of a news story I heard. Local residents were trying to rescue Albert from the fire, but he wouldn’t fit in their car. I built a different story around it, and I thought it would be nice to have a story that focused on Albert’s resilience.”

Final touches are happening with the book, and once published, the proceeds will be donated to the Boulder Creek Fire Department. Pre-orders will begin in September.

Coming together

Organizer Antonia Bradford said it took about six weeks to put the event together. 

“I started putting this together in June, and all of a sudden, people jumped in to help. Everything you see here is a result of all the organizers, including John Payne, vocalist for the band Wolf Jett, who lost his home,” she said. “He brought in the musical aspect, and we all brainstormed together. Each of us bought something different to the table.” 

Bradford said she was happy to host an event that put money back into the coffers of the Brookdale Lodge, which served dinner and drinks. 

“They’ve been hit so hard with Covid, and I really wanted to support this local, historic business,” she said. “I didn’t want this to be an event where people felt obligated to donate. It really was an effort to bring the community together. 

“I was asked what this event means, and it really means community. It’s not just about the folks that lost their homes; it’s about the fact that all of us on the mountain went through something traumatic together. Those of us who lost our homes are still struggling for sure, but this is about how, even through that, our community has rallied. We love and support each other. This area is worth fighting for. It’s worth being here. A lot of people left because it’s been so difficult to deal with the county when it comes to rebuilding. Me? I’m not leaving. This is where I have put down roots, and where I want my kids to grow up. That’s what tonight is all about: celebrating how beautiful and special the San Lorenzo Valley is.”

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