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.
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.