Wildfire season is off to a record-breaking start in California, and the recovery will be a long process, especially for the hundreds of people on the Central Coast and throughout the state who have lost their homes.
What Ian Smith loved the most about his home in Cachagua was the view at sunset. His property in Sky Ranch sat above the coastal fog that fills Carmel Valley in the evening.
“When you look out to Santa Cruz and Carmel, you’re looking over the clouds,” he said.
When Smith moved into the house last year, he knew fires were possible. That became a reality in mid-August when the Carmel Fire, which broke out on August 18, forced him to evacuate.
After sheriff’s deputies told him it was time to go, he fled with little more than the clothes on his back.
“We barely made it. When we got onto Cachagua Road, I looked over and there was a mountain on fire coming right up to the house,” he said.
The next day he got a text from a neighbor breaking the terrible news. His home was gone.
Now Smith is starting the long, complicated process of rebuilding. He has a lot of questions. What will insurance cover? Amid a pandemic, where do you get N-95 masks to start digging through the ash?And how do you build a house that can withstand future fires?
Smith plans to rebuild in the same spot, but this time, he is using concrete instead of wood.
“It's going to be built with the assumption that it’s going to see three fires,” he said.
Hundreds of people in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties are in the same position as four major fires forced thousands to evacuate. Fifty homes were lost in the Carmel Fire in Carmel Valley; around a dozen were destroyed in the River Fire near Salinas. The CZU Lightning Complex in northern Santa Cruz County destroyed over 900 homes. And the Dolan Fire south of Big Sur continues to threaten communities.
“All of us are sitting thinking how do you even start?” said Steve Palumbi, who lost his house in Trampa Canyon during the Carmel Fire.
It wasn’t Palumbi’s primary residence yet treasures like a cross stitch tablecloth that had been passed down for generations are gone.
But Palumbi said neighbors are coming together to help each other out.
“I might learn one thing, then Maria will learn something else, and Kevin will learn something else. And we put those together and figure out what we can actually do,” he said.
Support for fire survivors is also available from federal, state and local agencies. A community resource center set up at the Monterey Conference Center has representatives from FEMA, Vital Records, Social Services and the DMV. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until September 12. There’s a Resource Recovery Center in Santa Cruz County at the Kaiser Permanente Arena, which is open daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Local county officials also created virtual wildfire resources centers.
A piece of advice from FEMA — apply for aid now. Those affected by fires in Monterey and Santa Cruz have until October 21 to register for financial aid that could go towards costs insurance won’t cover, including rent and childcare.
Monterey County fire survivors also have an advocate at the county’s Resource Management Agency. Freda Escobar is the permit coordinator.
“Reach out and give me a call and then I'll help them create a checklist, next steps. And then we'll go from there,” she said
Escobar helps people submit applications for building permits. She said the first step is checking whether insurance will cover the permit fees. The Monterey County Board of Supervisors is also considering waiving fees for those impacted by the fires if insurance won’t pay them. Permit applications can be submitted online and fire survivors will be given priority.
Beyond the paperwork, there’s also the emotional recovery.
“It’s really normal for people who have lived through traumatic events or disasters like wildfires to feel a lot of emotional distress and really strong emotions,” said Dr. Marni Sandoval, a licensed psychologist with Monterey County Behavioral Health.
“Allowing yourself the time and space to mourn the losses that you’ve experienced and just being kind to yourself about the emotions that come forward,” Sandoval said.
Stress from wildfires comes on top of anxiety caused by COVID-19 and a crippled economy. Despite all the upheaval, trying to get back into a normal lifestyle is important, advises Amy Snyder, a therapist at Harmony at Home, which offers counseling for families in Monterey County.
“I know that sounds nearly impossible. But if you go on a daily run, keep doing that run. Whatever routines you had before, try to stick to them as much as possible,” she said.
For so many others on the Central Coast, the next few months will be difficult, both logistically and emotionally.
When Smith, who lost his home on Cachagua Grade, returned for the first time after the Carmel Fire, he said he was still in shock.
“I expected some big emotional release or I was going to break down or something. But I was just kind of numb,” he said.
Even though he’s beginning the rebuilding process, he’s already preparing for the next fire. And when it comes?
“I'm not leaving next time. Absolutely not,” he said. “I just started to go volunteer at Cachagua Fire. So next time it happens, if there's a next time, I'll be fighting the fire.”
MONTEREY COUNTY MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
Monterey County Behavioral Health Access to Treatment: call the 24-hour toll free number 1 (888) 258-6029 to be connected with a Behavioral Health team member who will connect you to appropriate resources or schedule an appointment with a therapist. More information available here.
Mental health crisis team at Natividad hospital: call the 24-hour number at (831) 755-4111
Child and Youth Mobile Response Team: call the 24-hour number at (831) 687-4379
Harmony at Home counseling: Call the Carmel office at (831) 625-5160 or the Salinas office at (831) 272-6644
SANTA CRUZ COUNTY MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health: call 24-hr access line at 1 (800) 952-2335 or visit the County Behavioral Health website
Mental Health services through the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency: contact the Access Team at (831) 454-4170 or (800) 952-2335 available 24 hours a day. Walk-in crisis services available Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1400 Emeline Avenue Santa Cruz, CA 95060. Visit the website for more information.
STATE-WIDE AND NATIONAL RESOURCES
California Peer-Run Warm Line: 1 (855) 845-7415
National Suicide Prevention 24/7 Hotline: (877) 663-5433