One Year After Our Big Fire

Since the firestorm of 2020, I’ve witnessed both the rebounding resilience of nature as well as post-fire human responses that have ranged from truly awe-inspiring to bewildering. When the fire first struck, I had a harrowing 10-day amateur-firefighting experience. I well recall the panic – and the portentous moment when toasted tanoak leaves floated down from the smoke-darkened sky. Soon thereafter, the march of head-high flames incinerated everything on our farm that we couldn’t save with just us two people and our heavy fire hoses. After the smoke and flames – and through the entire year since – there’s been so much change.

This story starts last August, when we endured three days of wilting heat. Then, a hurricane hundreds of miles south of us went rogue, splitting in two, half of it raking quickly across the length of California. I woke to that half a hurricane – a massive silver-gray cloud-wall steaming and rolling north along the coast and a 10-minute-long 70-mph wind gust accompanying devilish sheets of whole sky-enveloping lightning and unbroken thunder. Soon, lightning-ignited small fires in too-remote areas joined together into a monstrously huge and fast-moving firestorm. State firefighters could not gather resources quickly enough to fight it and called for evacuations, and all but one person escaped with their lives. Non-humans fared less well. The smoke and flames took a month to dissipate, allowing thousands of evacuees to return to what, if anything, might be left of their homes.

The fire left a landscape of blowing ash and a hundred shades of charcoal gray with sporadic patches of toasted brown vegetation and very few areas of green plants that somehow escaped the flames.

Before the fire, lush redwood forests had dripped fog onto carpets of ferns and sorrel. Under high conifer canopy, Pacific wrens whistled away the days in brilliant, wandering sunrays. Daylight transitioned into forest-hushed nights with owls hooting and woodrats rattling their fleshy tails. Those same forests, after the fire, were spires of high, blackened, tree-trunk pillars with few branches remaining. These towered over ankle-deep, white, fluffy ash and patches of crunchy charcoal. All the animals were gone … many had roasted alive.

Before the fire, the ridgelines above those forests had been dense chaparral. There were millions of 10-foot-tall, lush, green pines erupting through rafts of shorter shrubs – a dazzling array of colors with resinous and sweet scents and a multitude of textures. Eleven years previous, the Lockheed Fire had burned much of this chaparral, and all this life had since rebounded. In the wake of that fire – a timebomb: criss-crossed, 6–12-inch-diameter logs from killed and gradually falling pines piled up hip-high for thousands of acres and miles around. During last year’s firestorm, those logs burned so hot they left impressions criss-crossing the hillsides, each outlined in white ash and vaporizing what little soil there was into red brick. That heat cleared ridge after ridge down to the stone we call “chalk rock,” a fractured mudstone crushing easily or making metallic, pottery-shard noises when you walk across it. For months after the fire, peering closely, nestled in piles of charred rock, you could find little fingers of burned stems and twisted fists of stump-like burls, all black, seemingly lifeless.

Among these forests and in the chaparral, people were living in neighborhoods and rural properties large and small. Since the early 1900s, neighborhoods had gradually developed, woven in between natural areas and parks set aside for redwood conservation and recreation. The fire destroyed the remote Last Chance neighborhood and badly affected other neighborhoods in the hills above Boulder Creek. The fire also tore through the Swanton community and then much of Bonny Doon. These communities contained layers of history. Generations-old families shared this landscape with the newest wave of neighbors from the wealth machine of Silicon Valley. University of California administrators and professors, along with student renters, were living alongside old hippies and back-to-the-landers of all political persuasions. There were also many blue-collar tradespeople, teachers, and retailers. This was a mixing pot of politics, perhaps with more left-leaners, and all united by a love of rural living. They found ways to be good neighbors from sharing news to clearing roads and helping newcomers figure out how to settle in comfortably with the various issues unique to this part of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The fire burned homes new and old, whether they were owned by the super-rich or the very poor. There were dilapidated, barely habitable shacks surrounded by old cars, tattered furniture, and storage sheds with recyclables overflowing into the surrounding forest. And then there were the fancier estates – polished redwood decks, outdoor kitchens with marble countertops and brick pizza ovens, fancy hot tubs, and English gardens with statuary. These varied developments were all mixed up in the matrix of shrubs and trees, chaparral, and forest – one of the two most diverse natural landscapes of North America. The fire made the patches of human stuff into the same types of ash and waste: deep piles of charcoal and blowing nasty ash accented in places by unrecognizable twisted metal and piles of collapsed brick. New cars or old – it was hard to tell from the burned-out, fire-wasted frames. It was impossible to tell where the landscaping stopped, and the wild places began.

People’s responses to the fire were even more varied than their ways of life had been prior to the fire. During the peak of the fire and for the long period of smoldering and even longer evacuation period, the few brave and stalwart worked hard protecting their homes, their neighbors’ homes, their pets, and human friends wherever possible. On the edges of retreating flames, packs of looters swept in, stealing from houses burned and those that were spared. A standoff between the stalwart stay-behinds and looters resulted in a looter getting shot in the leg. Someone who lost nearly everything set aside some mementos at dusk, only to find them gone the next morning. A year later, strangers still lurk around the burned areas looking for stuff to steal. As if the fire itself weren’t enough.

The many who lost their homes were scattered. A few quite visible ones took up trailer homes along the highway in Davenport. Many moved to rentals or into homes with friends, adding to the crowded town. After a few, seemingly long months of waiting, the government-run cleanup started: giant machines scooping and scraping the charred piles of debris into convoys of trucks, hauling the stuff “away.” We were impatient and then happy for the efficiency, strength, and scale of this enterprise. No one asked and there was no news about where that stuff went, what the communities and land think of how we disposed of it, far away from here. After cleanup, some people sold out while others stayed put. It was a sellers’ market, but that meant those selling out faced grim realities for purchasing anything else in the area, and some were forced to leave. Slowly house trailers appeared on wrecked properties. A small fraction found the means to start rebuilding.

Between the remaining homes or the burned-up human stuff, some people (like me) were fascinated and relieved by the resilience of nature, bolstered by its ability to heal and rebound. To others, nature was too slow—they wanted a kind of speed healing and found many ways to apply Band-Aids to cover the fire’s wounds. Some know nature heals but wanted to help it along. Others had no sense of nature and acted like alien gardeners on some other planet. Others were never much at tending the land: they had never been much interested in such things. County-hired contractors hydroseeded burned building sites and surrounded them with straw bundles to contain toxic runoff. RCD employees were heroes, working ceaselessly to help stunned property owners prepare for post-fire rains, erosion, and slope failure. Meanwhile, people were tossing around native wildflower seed mixes to hopefully brighten land. Others, wanting more instant and positively perky landscapes, dug in thousands of roadside daffodil bulbs to persist and spread for centuries, a long-lasting and sad legacy spurred on by a well-meaning community leader.

Along roadsides and powerlines, orange-vested, hard-hatted officials spray-painted numbers on thousands of dead or damaged trees, and then the saws and grinders got going. Months of chainsaws and chippers whined and roared, shaking the earth and sky, filling hundreds and hundreds of trucks, hauling more stuff to yet unknown fates and destinations: “away.” People already traumatized by burn damage faced another shock as workers removed patches of forest in what was left of their yards, forever changing their historic views, removing their remaining privacy … all in the name of road or utility safety … or perhaps liability.

The first spring after the fire, the forest surged with life. Most redwood and oak trees that had burned resprouted. Some sprouted from their charred trunks, while others sprouted only from their bases. Understory herbs filled the spaces between the trees – twining vines, prickly thistles, and carpets of wildflowers. In many places, the forest floor was brighter than we had ever witnessed – dazzling flowers! Splashes of cream or blue iris bloomed profusely alongside extensive rafts of pale pink globe lilies. Animal life returned, too. Hungry deer shortened tanoak sprouts by the mouthful. Fish biologist “snorkel surveys” spotted surprising numbers of steelhead in the burnt and newly sun-brightened streams. Shortly after the fire, great horned owls hooted from recently cooled trees. A few more healing months and then pygmy owls also were cheerfully hooting away from the scorched forest.

The chaparral mostly rebounded, too. First there were many bush poppy sprouts…and many, tiny seedlings. Then, very slowly, the many fewer manzanita burls began pushing up sprouts. Chaparral oaks, madrones, and chinquapin joined the resprouting. In late April, the diverse fire-following flowers were starting their famous post-fire show. Massive patches of whispering bells carpeted hillsides – ferny foliage and pale-yellow bell-shaped flowers along with an odd scent that some people enjoy. An intrepid bunch of botanists I hiked with discovered a new population of small-flowered blazing star. And, we found previously undocumented areas of pink-purple stinging lupine, as well as sweetest-scented, tiny phacelia with yellow and pink flower mounds, and one new patch of the sapphire blue–flowered twining snapdragon. By midsummer, I could still walk easily through extensive areas of chaparral in the bare spots between resprouted 2-foot-tall shrubs and trees. Big patches of bright yellow bush poppies were feeding innumerable bees.

I could find only a very few pine and manzanita seedlings, so the chaparral will look a little different in the wake of this fire compared with the last fire. The cooler burning Lockheed Fire created massive thickets of knobcone pine seedlings – extending for miles outside of the fire footprint, where seeds were blown on the fire wind. With the very dry winter following this more recent fire, along with fewer pine cones and a short-lived seedbank, many fewer knobcone pines may regenerate this time around. With the aforementioned piles of Lockheed Fire–killed knobcone logs, the ground temperature got so hot that many ancient manzanita burls were destroyed. So, now fewer manzanitas and perhaps more open space (more weeds, more grasses or wildflowers?) will characterize the next generation of this chaparral.

Wildlife has recovered in the chaparral areas. The deer were most evident – I found bedding areas nestled into the protective, denser patches of burned-out pine shoots; they had also been browsing off the diversity of resprouting shoots. I was surprised to see gopher mounds – they must have been hungry for a long while awaiting something fresh to eat! Solitary bees were creating patches of burrows in the rare areas with soil, in between the chalk rock. Other pollinators were buzzing busily between the many post-fire wildflowers.

I am wondering now … what will happen next? In the hominid realm, I predict that this fire is in the process of creating a shift in the hill cultures. Cultural shifts occurred in Santa Cruz after the University opened in 1965, then again after the 1989 earthquake, and again after UCSC admissions policy changes in the late 1990s, and yet again with Silicon Valley gentrification accentuated by COVID remote-working policies. And, while the fire changed some minds as to attractiveness of rural living, it also has probably permanently displaced people who were economically marginal before the fire. Like downtown and the University, these rural areas are already taking a giant step towards having less “character” – the numbers of tinkerers, artists, and oddballs will plummet to be replaced by “normal” people of much greater economic means. I hope there will be enough critical mass of those people staying to continue the culture of rural, peaceful living, and cross-cultural welcoming and kindness. Already, I see people helping others in recovery, in bearing through the many jumpy instances – tedious smoke scares, power outages, and road closures. Our farm is so grateful for the outpouring of donations and physical support for recovery; many others have experienced the same generosity.

I predict that the attitude towards nature in general will shift from what has been more natural towards the more manicured, non-native, unnatural landscapes currently found more often in suburban Southern California. This trend started with the mass plantings of “cheerful” daffodils and will continue with greater numbers of fire-proof “garden beds” full of red lava rock gravel, trucked from torn apart hillsides miles away, accented by well-spaced foreign, pink-flowering daisy bushes … trellis arches of bougainvillea pouring over hummingbird feeders by tiled patios with huge propane grills and circles of ornate metal lawn furniture. More of our endangered chaparral will be bulldozed to dirt, forests will be chainsawed farther away from “civilization.” Where once red-trunked manzanitas were festooned by honey-scented clusters of pink flowers through winter, where once there were sprawling, lichen-covered live oaks full of birdsong, there will be lifeless mats of 2-inch weed stubble, the product of three or four times a year of mowing, for fire safety. These weeds will carry fire quickly nevertheless, when comes the day that fire returns.

I find the predictable response of the general population only somewhat offset by a few people with greater things in mind. This past year, I’ve seen signs of more of my community learning to live in this fire-prone place during these increasingly hot and dry times. Friends I visit are doing more safety clearance around their homes. I see Bonny Doon Firesafe Council’s and others’ advertisements of well-attended workshops for “home hardening” – an odd term that means making it harder for fire to burn your house. Across our region, volunteers are training together to use “good fire” to clear fuels that would be more dangerous during uncontrolled wildfire. The Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association has even started burning areas using well-trained volunteers who are gaining more experience. Just this past year it has become common knowledge that the only way to really live in this state is to use prescribed burns over millions of acres, and that’s going to take a lot of work.

Fire is part of ecological restoration in California, but forests that haven’t been tended since Native People’s times require a lot of fuels reduction before “good fire” can hit the ground. Conservation lands managers with the San Vicente Redwoods, State Parks, and Swanton Pacific Ranch have all been awarded State funding to prepare their forests for prescribed burns. In the coming few years, we will be able to witness the largest-scale restoration work our area has experienced in more than 200 years, since the native peoples were forcibly removed from this land.

We can all take part in this restoration effort. We can volunteer with the Prescribed Burn Association or with invasive plant control teams. Neighbors to wildlands can do their part to protect their homes and to keep fire from spreading from built areas into the wildland while still restoring native species. Through these coming times, if you have the wherewithal, it is important to document what happens. The year before this past fire, I began organizing a “ten-year retrospective” from the Lockheed Fire. I searched to find anyone who could speak to what we had learned or what (even more simply) change they had documented over that decade. I could find no scientific studies, no documentation at all. Jim West took hundreds of photos immediately post-fire in the Swanton area, but no one followed up to see how those scenes changed over time. Without documentation, without trying to learn from our experiences, how can we improve how we live on the land, how we restore nature, or how we respond the next time fire scorches the landscape?

With this fire, though, I know people who have initiated post-fire research. For instance, there are now two studies examining fire effects on our local forest soils. And, mainly because of the Montecito landslides, teams from United States Geological Survey and the California Geologic Survey mobilized quickly, before last winter’s rains, to learn how to better predict slope failure and debris flows. Ongoing marbled murrelet and mountain lion research will no doubt incorporate fire effects into their analyses. The Federal Fish People have been studying how salmonid populations changed after the fire. This post fire report after the fire is all I have seen that analyzes firefighter response; there may be other internal studies.

What’s next with our rebound from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire? Timelines for rebuilding will necessitate a continuation of the housing problems – people in trailers or displaced to rentals while they organize for rebuilding. Hundreds of people who had no prior experience with home building, and all of the permitting involved, will continue their steep learning curves and patience development. They are lucky for the leadership shown by the Community Foundation who sponsored a fire-wide debris flow study, which would have otherwise been burdens on each individual landowner to fund, separately, for each house rebuild. The County has enacted some building review and permit streamlining processes, but experiences have been mixed.

While we really want more rain this winter, we will worry about landslides. The winter rains will bring lush regrowth in the burned areas – any remaining patches left bare by the fire will be covered with luxuriant plants. Rebounding and lush, miles of newly sprouting shrubs mean lots of food for lots more deer … which will be good food for mountain lions. The blue-blossom ceanothus that sprouted from millions of seeds after the fire will bloom this spring, creating drifts of sweet-smelling lilac flowers and clouds of bees. Some woodpecker populations will skyrocket, but acorn woodpeckers will be having a hard time from the loss of all the oaks. With much of the hazardous trees removed along roads and utility lines, that kind of noise will be slowly replaced by hammering and sawing of anything that can be rebuilt.

The future is uncertain. I wish the best for nature and for those who need to heal, to rebuild, to settle into their new communities, to fall in love again with new pets, to learn to live with new neighbors and new landscapes, to learn and grow from past trauma and new fear. I also am so happy to be a part of a community of brave and stalwart protectors, skilled makers, musicians, healers, restorationists, cooks, and land-tenders. I wish my community the best, to live long healthy lives and to stick around, working together to settle into becoming indigenous with this beautiful land.

Note: if you have observations from the post fire Aug 2020-Aug 2021 to share, please leave them as a comment here. I want to collect stories of what we’ve seen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s