When the CZU Lightning Complex Fire ripped through northern Santa Cruz County and mandatory evacuations were triggered, a patchwork of people in Bonny Doon assembled to fight the blaze. They defied orders to defend their neighborhoods.
“There was no Cal Fire up here for two and a half days,” said Mark Kuchler, a longtime resident.
Kuchler and his husband Glen Hanson decided to stay and fight as a lightning-sparked blaze quickly approached their house early last week.
The couple’s Bonny Doon home has been in Kuchler’s family since 1975. He used to be the neighborhood groundskeeper, taking care of thousands of acres of land. That deep understanding, and his knowledge of how to protect properties from fire damage, Kuchler said, helped him attack the blaze.
Now, the couple is patrolling, surveying damage, wetting down smoldering embers and putting out spot fires here and there. They’re also stripping brush, and trying to create defensible space for their neighbors.
On Wednesday, when firefighters had gained an upper-hand on the blaze, Kuchler and Hanson drove past homes preserved amidst charred manzanitas and madrones. A blanket of grey-white ash covers the ground, where redwoods still stand tall, resilient amongst the fire.
“If we weren’t here, these houses that are here, none of them would be here,” Kuchler said.
During the first few days of the firefight, the couple used their tractor to clear brush and cut fire lines. They also commandeered their neighbor’s fully-outfitted fire truck to quelch flames.
The couple said they saved ten homes in their neighborhood.
But it wasn’t without risk. On one hillside, where they sprang into action and protected a group of properties, Hanson recounted a perilous moment.
“This was all a wall of fire. The smoke was so thick, it was like acid, I could just feel my skin singeing, and my eyelashes burning,” Hanson said. “That’s when I said we can’t be here. I thought that we would die in here.”
That’s the type of scenario Cal Fire is worried about.
“The situation that they put themselves in, it’s a very dangerous position,” Edwin Zuniga, a Cal Fire Public Information officer said. “We prioritize life over property, we don’t want anyone being trapped in a fire situation like that, we want them to evacuate.”
Zuniga said he understands the frustration people had.
“And we were just completely stripped across the state. We’re sorry we couldn’t be there all at once,” he said.
But Dave Gillotte, a captain with L.A. County’s Fire Department who’s been in Bonny Doon working the blaze with his crew, said they’ve been able to collaborate with citizen firefighters.
“They had tanks and pumps and they were working to do what they could. And they were, of course, overwhelmed in certain areas,” Gillotte said. “Our position is to come and not only embrace them, they're not going anywhere, but let's give them direction and support to keep them safe.”
Despite the danger, Kuchler and Hanson feel they were protecting more than just homes.
“I got a hold of the schoolteacher to say that ‘we saved your house,’” Kuchler recounted. “And she was just so joyful and happy. She was crying. And it was just like, wow, you know, we did that.”
If they hadn't, Kuchler said, “Would she have been able to stay a teacher in this area?”
The couple is worried that the fabric of their community will be changed by the fire.
Cal Fire’s preliminary damage maps show that over 100 homes in Bonny Doon were likely destroyed. In Santa Cruz alone, at least 788 structures have been destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
Down the road from the schoolteacher’s home, the fire tore through 2 properties off Saw Mill Road. All that’s left on one parcel is a chimney, which rises into the sky, meeting towering redwoods and Douglas fir.
In its wake, the fire left a disfigured Singer sewing machine and a cement birdbath.
"In that one little thing left, you feel the personality of the person that lived there,” Hanson remarked, walking the property.
“This was a cute little cabin,” Hanson said pointing to what remains. “No one’s really doing that anymore, there’s not little old woodworkers up here building their place in the 70s, and having weird hippie drum circles.”
In a region that’s rapidly changing as rent and home prices soar, the couple is concerned the fire will further deepen inequity.
In Santa Cruz County, according to Redfin data, the average home price in July 2012 was $501,000, compared to $947,000 now. The average price of a home for sale in Bonny Doon is over $900,000.
Renters and long-time locals who live on family property, might not be able to come back, the couple said.
“If you get out of Santa Cruz County, you really can't get back in,” Hanson said. “Unless you're really rich. So, there's a lot of people living out here that when they lose that, it's done for them.”
Beyond that, Kuchler said he’s worried the fire could erase the unique culture of their mountain hamlet.
“Half of our community is going to be gone. We do have a community here and we have a community spirit, and we could possibly lose that,” Kuchler said. “There’s not too many places like that left in California that have that community spirit close to the ocean.”
Hanson, fighting tears, reflected on how many community members will be displaced.
“If you look at our Facebook page, it’s called Bonny Doon slice of heaven, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth. Every time I leave I say, ‘I just want to go home, I don’t need to be anywhere else,’” Hanson said.
With so many California communities being gentrified, Kuchler and Hanson said they aren’t just fighting the fire, but fighting to keep the soul of Bonny Doon alive.