Fire Refugees Overwhelm Santa Cruz County

Aug 22, 2020

Bonny Doon mother and son, Toni and Josh Bravo, and their dog Nala at the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds in Watsonville. This is the first fire to forced them from their home.
Credit Hannah Hagemann

More than 77,000 people have been displaced by the Lightning Complex Fire In Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties. In Santa Cruz County, that’s put a strain on shelter capacity. 

“There’s nothing like this even remotely close that has ever occurred in Santa Cruz County,” Jason Hoppin, the county’s communications manager said.  

The fires, in both counties, have burned more than 63,000 acres, Cal Fire officials said Saturday morning. More than 45,000 people in Santa Cruz County alone have had to evacuate. That represents about 1 in 5 residents, Hoppin said. 

He adds,“We have never evacuated this many people in our history.”

County officials have been scrambling to find space and updating which ones are full and which are open on their wildfire resources website

Hoppin said it’s been extra challenging to secure places that can adhere to COVID-19 safety precautions. As of Friday evening, they’d sheltered 900 evacuees. The county is working to expand outdoor shelters, Hoppin said, where evacuees can stay in tents.  Airbnb has also launched a program that might provide housing to those evacuated. 

 “It's really just a resource issue, if we ask Red Cross to staff shelters... they’re being asked to staff shelters across Northern California,” Hoppin said, explaining the effect of the strain of multiple fires burning in the state.   At the boardwalk, a shelter was set up for students evacuated from UC Santa Cruz. 

The county is working to expand outdoor shelters, Hoppin said, where evacuees can stay in tents.  Airbnb has also launched a program that might provide housing to those evacuated. 

Shelter set up at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk for those evacuated from UC Santa Cruz.
Credit Hannah Hagemann

At the boardwalk, a shelter was set up for students evacuated from UC Santa Cruz. Quinton Liu, a student who arrived late Thursday night said he’s saddened at the thought that some of his favorite hiking spots might not ever be the same. 

“Big Basin, Pogonip, Henry Cowell, I’ve been to all of them. So something sort of might get lost,” Liu said.  

Liu and other students have been told they can’t return to campus for at least two weeks. Santa Cruz County officials say the two week timetable may apply to all evacuees. 

Santa Cruz county evacuees may also not be able to return home for weeks, according to officials. 

 

“We don’t expect many of these people will be able to go back to their homes for some time so this is more of a long term thing than a short term thing,” Jason Hoppin, said. 

 Evacuees are asked to try and see if they can stay with friends and family, first. 

 

Some, though, don't have that option.

 

Eric Mettler, who’s lived in the Felton area for over 20 years, camped out in his car at the Santa Cruz Bible Church. 

 

He had to evacuate on his birthday. He said most of his friends and neighbors were able to find places to stay but his relatives all live out of state.  Mettler thinks he’s the only one who had to go to a shelter. 

 

Still, Mettler’s determined to go back and rebuild if he has to.

 

“To me it’s not an investment, it's my home, Mettler said, “You don't want to lose it but regardless of what happens I will go back there, pitch a tent and fix it.”

The church opened its doors Thursday evening as evacuees were fleeing Scotts Valley.

People coming in are overwhelmed, according to Pastor Scott Leggett. Leggett is the leader of the Santa Cruz Bible church. 

 

“You see it in their eyes, like wow, I’m here, but I have no idea what just happened.”

Inside the evacuation center at the Santa Cruz Bible Church. Additional evacuees are sleeping in cars and campers in the church parking lot.
Credit Hannah Hagemann

 

In a disaster this big, Leggett said small moments stand out, like when a stranger offered coffee. 

“They were sitting out in the morning on some chairs, and a lady came across the street with a coffee pot, and she stopped by with tears in her eyes and said ‘I have no idea what you're going through in your life right now, but can I give you some coffee?’” Leggett recounted, “And they said that was just a huge thing.”

Volunteers and employees working the evacuation center at the church have had to evacuate their own homes, Leggett said. 

“We’re just trying to treat it like our own home, how do we welcome you in, and care for you, and take the thinking out of it.”

He’s trying to make the shelter as comfortable as possible for people going through a tragedy. 

This weekend, county officials continue to help people find somewhere safe to stay.