CZU Lightning Complex Fire

The Mountains of the Moon

I know the Mountains of the Moon are a place in Africa near the headwaters of the Nile river. It’s a name of a place I have heard about somewhere before. I liked the sound of it so I filed it away in my mental Rolodex for future use. I never thought I’d be in a place where I’d use it to describe a location. After my first trip back to Last Chance yesterday however, I can say without a doubt that’s how I’d describe the place now.

For weeks I’ve been dealing with the trauma of having to flee for my life from the conflagration. I’ve been doing a lot better lately, but I’ve been needing to return to further the healing process. It’s something that I’ve been dreading, but needed to do. Just knowing about how bad it was was one thing, but I needed to see it with my own eyes. Yesterday was finally the day I decided to go back up there.

As soon as I turned off Highway 1 to head up Last Chance, the scale of the destruction hit me. At the bottom, there were quite a few homes that miraculously survived the inferno. Of course there were some burned out homes, but that particular area fared better than I had supposed it would. When I turned up Last Chance Rd. however, it was like a gut punch. Everything along the 7 mile stretch was completely obliterated. The whole forest for miles and miles was complete ash. I’ve never seen such a complete obliteration of nature. Where there was beautiful redwood forest and lush greenery everywhere, there was now just differing shades of gray and black.

It just got worse the further I went. The road was in really bad shape, and barely navigable even for The Beast. A couple of times I met other vehicles and had to do some tricky reversing to get out of the way. On my way up Shelby Mountain, where I was living, I ran into Catdaddy and Jacob coming back down. Catdaddy had brought up his trailer for Jacob to live in while he’s working on cleaning up his property. They were scouting the driveway up to see if it was possible to get the trailer up there.

I got out of their way after greeting them, and proceeded to head on up to the property up top. They were going to have to do a bit of chainsawing to clear a path, so I wanted to have a moment up there by myself to come to terms with things. Jacob warned me that it was very hazardous in the footprint of the cabins from chemicals and sharp debris, and to wear a mask and have on boots if I wanted to poke around. He had actually been wearing a full Tyvek suit himself doing cleanup. The environmental people said that things were highly toxic from all the chemicals released by the fires so none of us wanted to get sick.

I was completely stunned when I got to the top of the mountain. It was hard to tell where everything had been, the destruction was so complete. I was really wondering about the fate of the things I had left behind, so I started poking around in the ruins of my cabin. I found my skillet (which was amazingly intact, but quite rusted) and my precious machete. The machete was warped and ruined, a testimony to the heat of the fire.

All of my possessions I could find.

The heat of the fire was so intense, it was like a forge up there. There were puddles of molten metal everythere. There was a big pile of beef bones stacked up that Jacob’s dogs had chewed on, when I stepped on them they crumbled into dust. It chilled me to the bone knowing that I was almost reduced to nothing but a pile of dusty bones myself.

Me at the exact spot where I stood when I saw and heard the fire coming at me and realized I had to run for my life.

As I was poking around taking pictures, Catdaddy and Jacob came back up and we had some beer and just talked about things. We were trying to crack jokes and make as much light of the situation as we could, but it was still really tough to deal with. After a bit, I took Catdaddy down to the base of the mountain so he could drive up the camper.

He drove it back up sucessfully, and the three of us donned Tyvek suits and gloves to remove Jacob’s water bladder. The remains of the bladder was resting on the flattest, best spot on the property to put the camper. We got it out of the way after a bit of difficulty. Catdaddy then manuvered the camper into place, and voila, Jacob now has a place to stay back on his property. He was really stoked, and we were happy for him.

Jacob with his new digs. It’s not much, but it’s a first step on the long road to recovery for him and his property.

After we got the camper moved in, I felt it was time to leave. I was mentally and physically exhausted and needed to get back down the mountain to recuperate. They were going to spend the night and drink beers. I would have loved to have hung out, but I can barely drink due to some medication I’m on so I had to pass.

Well, that’s the story of my return to what is now a lunar landscape. It really opened up a lot of wounds that I had thought were healing. Writing this blog post really helped clear my head. I’m so glad I have this creative outlet. In closing, I want to post a video I made of two of Jacob’s cats before the fire. It’s hard to watch, but I thought I’d post it anyways in their memory.

CZU Lightning Complex Fire, mountain life

Respooling My Reel

Sometimes when you’re fishing, you get a lot of slack in your line that causes a big ‘ol bird’s nest in your reel. It really sucks because you have to drop everything that you are doing and address the issue. It’s maddening trying to sort out your line so you can get it back down to do what it’s supposed to be doing. Fishing is a process. There has to be certain things that need to go right before you can even present your bait or lure to your targeted fish.

My life as of late has been very much like a snarled reel. I’m ready to go fishing but I can’t do anything with a bird’s nest going on. Sometimes it’s so bad that you have to strip it all out and put new line on your reel. Being a refugee in these times of plague has really stretched my ability to adapt and persevere. The whole world seems to be breaking down around me, and I’m scrambling just to barely get by. It totally broke me down to the point where I needed to just strip out all my line and respool myself. It took me a minute, but now I’ve got line back on and I’m ready to start fishing again.

Since the fire ravaged my county, I’ve been bouncing around, just trying to find some stability somewhere. For about three weeks now, I’ve been hanging out with my good friend and his lady at a sweet place up in the Aptos hills. It’s a 15 acre property full of huge redwoods way back in the mountains. There’s a pool and a hot tub open for whenever you want to cool off or heat up. It’s been a great place for me to catch my breath and get caught up with myself.

A pic of the swimming area, still under construction. This is a shot from a couple weeks ago when all the smoke from the fires made the sky look like Mars.

Up here on the property, I’ve been helping my friend with various projects. This past week, me and another friend of mine worked on lower branching this big redwood in the yard. It has a vine going up it that was as big as my arm, so all that had to come down. My friend has tree climbing experience so he went up there and sawed away all the branches and vines that needed to be removed. I worked as the ground guy to support him and clear out the debris as it fell.

When my buddy finally got done clearing out all the vines and branches, he was about 70 feet in the air. After chainsawing one particular big branch, there was still quite a large nub left on the trunk of the tree. My friend, seeing this, then had the brilliant idea to attach one of his climbing ropes to it so it would make a bad ass swing! The idea worked out incredibly. It was the best rope swing I’ve been on in a long time. We joked that it was more fun than being at Disneyland!

Another thing that is great about being up here is that my friends I’m staying with are raising three little kittens. It is so much fun having them around, it’s a much needed bit of levity seeing them scamper about. They have their own room to hang out in for most of the day, but in the evening they are released to roam about the house. I’ve not spent a lot of time hanging out with cats in my life, so it is a trip watching them go crazy and get into things. I swear, they are more like monkeys than cats! They are cool little creatures that have their own personalities. It’s highly entertaining hanging out with them.

Spike and Princess Leia getting into shenanigans.
This is Henry Miller. I consider him the quarterback of Team Kitten.

All the fires from the CZU Lightning Complex have been fully contained. Earlier this week I went on a tour of where I used to live and work up in Bonny Doon. Amazingly, the fire’s destruction ended in the front yard where I used to live. Pine Flat Road served as a fire break and 95% of the houses along it were saved. There were a couple of burned places where the flames couldn’t be denied, but for the most part my old neighborhood was intact.

Away from the road, however, the destruction was complete. So many people up in the Santa Cruz mountains lost everything. It’s been almost six weeks since the fires, and they still won’t let us go back up to Last Chance. There’s just so many burned trees and hazards up there, it’s not safe even now. There’s a lot of talk about the coming rain from the winter monsoons causing mudslides everywhere. I imagine there will be some epicly horrible slides making life difficult for everyone living in the mountains.

It’s all paved roads where I’m at now fortunately. Not only that, but my friend cleared out a lot of brush and trees around the house so there’s a ton of defensible space here. We’re about as ready as we are ever going to be if the flames come a’knocking again.

With our country in a frezny due to all the political strife and the virus, I feel pretty secure where I’m at now. We are pretty well dug in here. Since there’s fifteen acres insulating us from the neighbors, it’s nice and peaceful. It’s been good medicine for me after the curveballs I’ve had this year. I’m slowly starting to get back on track financially and mentally as well. Unfortunately, it will soon be my least favorite part of the year. I dread winter so much every time it rolls around.

I despise winter, being as I have to sleep out in the elements. Also, Christmas annoys the hell out of me and I really hate the short days. It would make life a whole lot more tolerable if I had a decent shelter, so I’m starting to look out for a good used pop up camper for my truck. That would really be a game changer for me! They make some good ones that would fit nicely in the bed of The Beast. I’ll have to drop at least 5 to 6 grand for what I want, so for now it’s only wishful thinking.

Well, that’s about all to report for now. Hopefully soon I can get back up to Last Chance to see if there’s anything left. I’d really like to see if my skillet and machete made it through. Everything else is most certainly ash. All righty, until next time!

CZU Lightning Complex Fire

Runnin’ From the Devil

So just an hour after I uploaded my last post, our next-door neighbor up on the mountain came over and told us that people in the community were starting to talk about evacuating. Immediately I grabbed my guitar, my fishing poles, and my clothes & bedding. Since I had just moved my stuff into the cabin it took a minute to pack everything back into The Beast all haphazardly.

After all this was done, I settled in to eat some blackeyed peas and rice I had just made. My thoughts were that I should eat as much as I can in case I needed the energy to flee. The fires off in the distance didn’t seem to be growing, and the winds were still. Unbeknownst to us, there was a vicious 40 mile per hour offshore wind blowing in from the north that was being blocked from that direction by mountain ridges. I could have never known that those peas and rice were almost my last meal.

I had just finished my dinner and was sitting around relaxing, it was around ten o’clock I think. I heard Jacob and The Professor yelling and hollering from Jacob’s cabin, they were watching the Trailblazers game and getting all worked up. I smiled at my friends having something to distract them from the tense situation. I got up to take a leak outside when I heard this roar I couldn’t quite place coming from behind our cabins up on the ridge. Since we don’t face that direction, I hadn’t noticed what was going on behind us. The night sky in that direction was bright orange and red, and the sound I heard was like a whole airport of jet engines taking off all at once.

I stood for a full minute trying to process what I was seeing, and at the moment when I realized what was about to happen, the next door neighbor ran over and told us it was time to get the hell out of Dodge! The Fear washed over me like a flood as I grabbed whatever was in my immediate vicinity. Since I had the only fridge/freezer on the property, all our salmon was stored there. Jacob ran over and we both grabbed as much fish as we could. What a true fisherman he is, he got his frozen fillets safe at the last minute. I don’t even think he thought to grab hardly anything else.

We made a quick check to see if we were all ready to go, and within 3 minutes we were convoying down the mountain. As we rounded the turn to head down, I turned to look back and saw the first flames crest the ridge. It was like looking at the face of the Devil. We sped down Last Chance Rd. as fast as we could go. A couple of times I had to check myself when I fish-tailed. I knew if I wrecked or worse, blocked the road somehow, it could trap myself and everyone behind me who was in full flight.

That 30 minute drive down the mountain was the longest drive I had ever made in my life. It was an intense white-knuckled experience all the way down. The whole mountainside to our right was on fire and was heading our way, and we knew that it was the same behind us. Incredibly, there were a couple vehicles actually going BACK UP the mountain! What fools! They had no clue, I yelled at them to turn around as we went by but that’s all I could do. As we continued downhill, more and more vehicles joined our convoy. I was glad to see that people had gotten the word to get out.

Close to the bottom, we ran into a CalFire engine that was blocking the road, stopping traffic. For a horrifying moment, I thought that our escape route was blocked by fire and they were prepared to make a last stand with us. Fortunately, they were just trying to get themselves staged to head back into the inferno that we had fled from. As we made our way down the last stretch, there must have been 10 CalFire engines headed back up. God bless the cavalry! I whooped as I passed them. Such brave men and women they are.

At long last we hit Swanton Road, and just short of Highway 1 we stopped to let everyone catch up. The Professor, Redwood (our neighbor who initially gave us the head’s up) and I were together, but Jacob lagged behind. He rolled in a couple of minutes behind us, he was delayed after trying to warn his neighbors about the firestorm who might not have known what was about to go down.

We all agreed to go down to Waddell Creek beach to get a look back up the mountain at the fire before we went to our evac house in westside Santa Cruz. We got there and the fire was already burning down all the way to the highway. A CalFire dozer operator was staged there and he let us listen to his radio to hear what was going on back up the mountain.

It sounded like a war zone on the comm. “We’re getting overrun, fall back, fall back! The fire has jumped Last Chance Road, get off the mountain!” is what we heard. I’m glad they didn’t get enveloped and got out of there. There is nothing to be done when you’re faced with 50 to 100 foot walls of fast-moving fire except to run for your life. The fireman was a 15 year vet of the service from the Central Valley and he said this was one of the most intense fires he had ever seen. He’s like, “I hate to tell you boys, but this ain’t looking good.” We agreed that it sure wasn’t looking good at all. If we had delayed our departure by 15 minutes, we wouldn’t have made it out.

The view from Waddell Creek beach looking back up the mountain towards Last Chance across Highway 1. The glow on the right was our escape route on fire moments after we left it.

After having a beer to steady our nerves, we decided to get down Highway 1 to safe harbor. The ash was thick and stuff was falling out of the sky on our retreat. Some giant rock or chuck of debris slammed into my driver’s side door around Scott’s Creek, no doubt lofted into the air by some explosion back up the mountain. I’m glad it didn’t hit higher up in my window, as it might have taken me out.

Jacob had a friend over in westside Santa Cruz that said it was fine if we crashed at her place. We rolled up and she had plenty of tequila and space for us to relax. She was an angel, I so much appreciate her opening her home to us. Over the course of that night and the next day the situation was super tense. We had no idea what the fire was going to do, it seemed like it was capable of burning down the world.

We had word that there were fires to the east and the south that were just as bad. At one point I was going to go down to the harbor where I used to live and go out as far as I could on the jetty rocks to escape if I had to. The fire was moving so fast towards westside Santa Cruz, it was not much of a stretch of imagination to see it burning up the city. Fortunately, the winds died and the firefighters managed to cut some burly firelines north of UCSC to protect the town pretty fast.

After a couple of nights on the Westside, I decided to relocate to Catdaddy’s house outside Watsonville. He lives halfway down the Monterey Bay, a good distance away from the fire-trap mountains. This area is full of fields and agriculture so there are natural fire-breaks at his spot. The air quality is so much better here than back in Santa Cruz. Also, my guns, cot frame and mattress were (thankfully) stored in my storage unit in Scott’s Valley out of the fire’s reach, so I wanted to scoop them up. There were rumors that Scott’s Valley was about to evac however, so I wanted to go get my stuff out of the path of possible devastation.

Sure enough, not long after I got my gear out of storage, Scott’s Valley had a mandatory evacuation order. I was so glad to get myself and my essentials out of harm’s way. I’m never going to let a natural disaster out-flank me again if I can help it. The past five days or so Catdaddy, his awesome lady Kellsie, our good friend Jenny and their dog Mr. Wu have been hosting me at their house.

A couple of days ago, Jacob and The Professor came down to join us. It was agreed that we all needed to do something to get our minds off all this horror, so we went salmon fishing. I’ve always said that, when in doubt, go fishing! We caught a couple of 10 lb’ers and were blessed with perfect conditions. We spent 12 hours out on the water. The Professor landed his very first salmon, and the joy he expressed upon doing so helped dispell a lot of the gloom we’ve all been feeling the past week.

So now, the question is, what next? We’re all in survival mode here still, we’re not out of the woods yet by a long stretch. One of our neighbors went up to our mountaintop the next day to report all was vaporized at our place. I lost a lot of treasured items for sure. The biggest one was a vial of ashes I had from a dear friend’s cremation I had stashed in with my fishing gear. For some reason I grabbed my freshwater tackle box, but not my saltwater tackle box or this bin that had all my other fishing gear in it, including the ashes. The other great losses were my month’s supply of emergency food, (I’m really kicking myself in the ass for that one), a vintage WW2 machete a wise old wizard gave me 20 years ago back when I lived in Hawaii, and all my camping & kitchen gear.

All of that ain’t nothing compared with what Jacob lost though. All he got out with was his truck, his dogs and his laptop. He lost all he had worked for the past five years up on the mountain. We didn’t have time to grab the cats. Mama Cat, her kitten, and Papa Cat are gone. His neighbor actually had the most horrific tale of escape that made regional headlines.

He had packed up his truck, but when the fire came up he had misplaced his keys. He took his neighbor’s car with pet bunny in hand, but the window wouldn’t roll closed. He made it out right behind us, but the flaming debris came into the car through the open window and blew up something inside. He then had to ditch the car and spent the rest of the night running from the flames on foot. He came across some firefighter in the AM who gave him a lift out at the bottom of the mountain. It was astonishing he made it out alive.

When we got to the bottom of the mountain, we heard that there were 4 people unaccounted for from the Last Chance community. I heard that yesterday that 3 of the 4 eventually turned up, but that one poor feller’s body was found in the ashes. I heard from Jacob he was a hermit who had bad knees and no phone, and so wasn’t dialed in to the community evac warning. A lot of people lived that way up there, I’m surprised that there weren’t more deaths. Hell, if we hadn’t seen it with our own eyes, we wouldn’t have gotten out as clean as we did. The fire moved so fast it even took CalFire off guard.

For now, we’re holding strong here. I just want to let whoever reads this communique know how important it is to have a disaster plan. Whether it is fire, tornado, earthquake, or hurricane, BE PREPARED. IT WILL HAPPEN TO YOU EVENTUALLY. The state and federal goverments are stretched to the limits, it is up to YOU and your communities to take care of each other. Assume there ain’t nobody else to do it because they more than likely can’t help.

We had a solid fire plan with CalFire, but they didn’t show up until the horse had already escaped the barn. There was no official warning either. I’m not faulting them at all, I’m sure they had to triage their response with the boots they had on the ground. A lot of their ground crews are usually made up of prisoners who are in lockdown now due to COVID. There was a huge shortfall in what is essentially slave labor that the state has always leaned upon. That, coupled with perfect environmental conditions led to this debacle.

We’ve got a long road to recovery here. They are saying it could be weeks until they let people back into the affected areas, and who knows how long until they can get the utilities restored. When the winter rains come, there’s going to be bad mudslides everywhere since there’s few trees left to hold up the hillsides. At last count, there are are somewhere around 80,000 refugees in the Santa Cruz area alone. I think there are 275,000 people displaced statewide from the other massive fires. Things are never going to be the same. I guess 2020 is the wretched gift that keeps on giving.

Anyways, keep calm and carry on out there everyone. Dogfish out.