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Between The Wildfire And The Pandemic, Santa Cruz Residents Are Anxious And Tired

CZU Lightning Complex Fire Santa Cruz evacuees
Hannah Hagemann
Evacuees fleeing their homes during the CZU Lightning Complex pick up food, water and supplies from an evacuation center in Santa Cruz.

Progress is being made on the CZU Lightning Complex Fire burning in San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties. The fire is now 19% percent contained after burning over 80,100 acres, as of Wednesday morning. KAZU’s Hannah Hagemann is covering the fire, which has burned over 520 structures in Santa Cruz County so far. She spoke with KAZU’s Doug McKnight on Tuesday.

Doug McKnight (DM): Hannah, you’ve covered this fire since the very beginning. What are you seeing on the ground?


Hannah Hagemann (HH): When this fire first really got going, there was definitely a sense that it was out of control, that it was a disaster. Resources were strained from multiple lightning caused fires raging in Northern California and the state, so it was hard to get enough firefighters on the line battling the blaze here. Officials were saying that they’d never seen a fire move this fast and burn so hot. 


But in the last 48 hours, there’s definitely been a change of outlook. More crews have arrived. Officials are sounding more confident. It's still early, but there's definitely a change in attitude.


Fire crews have been able to hold lines steady above UC Santa Cruz. That’s been a relief. They got better control of fires in Boulder Creek and made some really good progress in Davenport. There’s been a lot of concern about homes burning in those areas. And in Bonny Doon—that's been really hard hit, a lot of reports of properties being lost there—officials say slow progress is being made. So it's looking good. Even if they get ahold of this fire in the coming days, of course, there will be these long term impacts. 


DM: And the people who have been forced from their are they holding up?

HH: It’s a mix. Some people early on were saying, you know, we’ve done this before. We’re a tight knit community. We’re gonna ride this out. But as the fire grew, the mood changed, I felt.


When I went out and spoke with evacuees over the last few days, people are feeling really anxious and really tired. 

On Sunday, evacuees were forced to relocate if they were camped outside because of lightning risk. That was really stressful. Many of these people had already moved around a lot since having to flee.

Evacuees CZU Lightning Complex Fire burns in Santa County
Credit Hannah Hagemann
Evacuees camping in tents were forced to relocate again over the weekend due to potential lightning storms in the area.

Here's Sherry Hart, who had to evacuate her trailer in Scotts Valley. "I spent one night in KMart, and one night here but in my car. But I think most of us came prepared with food, water. You know, us old mountain folk," she told me.


In addition to shelters, the county has hotel vouchers. But a lot of them are in San Francisco and San Jose, so that's a bit of a drive. Hart said if she couldn’t get a hotel she’d rough it.


"We slept in my car before. We'll sleep in it again wherever we can. And we'll head south, I guess," said Hart.


I’ve been speaking with Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz County's communications manager. He says that with the number of homes that will be lost, sheltering people and making sure that they get through this, that effort is not going to end anytime soon. This fire will have a lasting impact on the community.


DM: Santa Cruz is such a beautiful place...Majestic redwoods and forest that descend to the sea...What is the mood in the area? 


HH: Luckily, the last couple days down here on the west side here where I am, we’ve had blue skies. That's been a welcome change. But I mean, it’s still tense. Even myself, we have family evacuated staying with us. They’re worried. We’re seeing crews get more containment, so that’s positive. But the fire’s still very much active.


I think another thing is Santa Cruz is a place where residents commune with nature. And with the news of Big Basin being burned and other wild, outdoor spaces taking a hit. People have been mourning those losses. Redwoods are pretty resilient, and they will likely withstand this. But still madrones, manzanitas and the wildlife, the forest-scape will be changed. That’s for sure.


Also, people have just been hard hit by the pandemic. And now they're having to flee their homes from the fire. Jumping around from shelter to shelter. Their future. Will they have a home to go back to? Will they be able to get work? Will they get sick from being in these higher risk scenarios? It's just all so uncertain.


Doug joined KAZU in 2004 as Development Director overseeing fundraising and grants. He was promoted to General Manager in 2009 and is currently retired and working part time in membership fundraising and news reporting at KAZU.
Hannah Hagemann is a 2019 Kroc Fellow. During her fellowship, she will work at NPR's National Desk and Weekend Edition.
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