By Julie Horner
After days of unnaturally scorching heat, mountain residents found themselves awakened pre-dawn by a ferocious wind. Suddenly the sky was alight, and the sound of thunder heralded an odd stillness. Some rushed outside with their children to watch the lightning. Others slept through the display.
The National Weather Service estimated there were some 2,500 lightning strikes in the mountains overnight, calling the activity “insane.” Soon, smoke from the Waddell Fire near Waddell Creek began to blanket SLV, confirming the worst. News that another fire, dubbed the Warnella Fire, was burning off Warnella Road and Cement Plant Road, east of Davenport. The lightning also sparked a series of smaller fires nearby.
A wind shift caused the fires to merge into what became known as the CZU Lightning Complex, which swept across the Santa Cruz Mountains, overwhelming fire response, and eventually scorching 86,509 acres and destroying 1,490 buildings in an area straddling San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties. One person, Tad Jones, a resident of the community of Last Chance, died trying to escape the blaze.
Evacuations lasted weeks, for some months. For over 900 families, there was no home to return to. Vital utilities and infrastructure including roads, water delivery, and power transmission systems had to be forged from the ground up. Hundreds of danger trees and acres of toxins had to be removed. Historic treasures like the Alba Schoolhouse in Ben Lomond and the visitor center at Big Basin Redwoods State Park in Boulder Creek were utterly destroyed. Some say it will take decades for the forest to recover.
One year later, the Santa Cruz Mountains community is gathering for a CZU fire remembrance event at the Brookdale Lodge on Wednesday, August 18 at 6:00 pm. Everyone is welcome. Cheyanne Valera created the poster art for the CZU remembrance event. She writes: “What an unbelievable year it has been. Thank you Antonia Bradford for bringing this to light.” Bradford, whose own home was destroyed, has been a strident advocate for those who also lost everything. “As a community we went through this trauma together,” she writes, “and it’s time for us to come together, fire folks and non-fire folks alike. Coming together is what we do in the mountains, it’s what makes this truly a special place to live.” It’s what makes us Santa Cruz Mountains Strong.