To Flee Or Not To Flee: The Stories Of Central Coast Wildfire Evacuees

Aug 28, 2020

 


Emotionally spent! That’s what many residents say they’re feeling now, after days of wildfires burning across the Central Coast. Some have fled their homes after being told to "leave now." Others had to anxiously wait to see if they would be ordered to evacuate. And then there’s those who defied evacuation orders in hopes of defending their properties.    

 

 

Silke Laetz’s balcony overlooks Laureles Grade, not far from Highway 68. Quail are playing on the dry, grassy slope nearby and woodpeckers are drumming the bark of the trees. There is a little fog in the air, but on all accounts, compared to the conditions of the last 10 days, it’s a beautiful day. 

“I feel wonderful,” Laetz said. 

That's relief you hear in Laetz’s voice as she looks east over the canyons in the direction of the wildfire she’s been watching for more than a week. She’s relieved because not too long ago she was preparing to flee her home as the River Fire edged closer and closer.  

“So it was a progression from, ‘Well, you know it doesn't affect me’, to ‘Boy this is coming closer’,” said Laetz.  

Silke Laetz stands on her balcony which overlooks Laureles Grade. This is where she watched the River Fire move closer and closer towards her home.
Credit Michelle Loxton.

Laetz received a text message from the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services on Sunday, saying she had to prepare to evacuate. 

“That's a little heart wrenching, making the tough decisions, what to take and what to leave. And you just have to tell yourself you can't take everything,” said Laetz. 

She found some advice about what to pack from a Facebook post by someone who had lost their home. Advice like taking pictures of each room and drawer for when you try to piece everything back together. 

Laetz took this photo of the River Fire from her balcony.
Credit Silke Laetz

And then she had to figure out where she would go. 

“And it becomes like, you know, who offers first. Who do you ask first,” said Laetz.  

Luckily the weather changed and that evacuation order never came. 

Natalia Jessen Fleschig and her family weren’t as fortunate. They live in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Bonny Doon on a farm where they grow lavender, which they use to make soaps, candles and essential oils. On August 18, they received their evacuation order. 

Jessen Fleschig left the mountain with her children but her parents and her husband decided they would stay and protect their property. 

They were not alone. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office says around 350 households made the same decision.

“They have their homesteads. And you're just not going to get them off the mountain. They know the risks,” said Jessen Fleschig. 

As the fire crept closer and closer. The family initiated their fire fighting plan. 

A photo taken by the Jessen Flechsig family of the fire coming close to their homes in Bonny Doon.
Credit Natalia Jessen Flechsig.

“Layout our whole fire hose plan. We put ladders on the roof,” said Jessen Fleschig. 

A plan they had been preparing since the 2008 Martin fire, which destroyed a few structures on their farm. 

“We basically work year after year to keep our defensible space open. We have tractors, bulldozers, excavators,” said Jessen Fleschig. 

Natalia sent me a video of her Mother, Mary Jessen, defending her home from the fire when it arrived. You can hear the flames burning in the background and a generator buzzing that they used to pump pressurized water through hoses.

Mary Jessen, her husband and son-in-law decided not to evacuate and rather stay and defend their property in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Credit Natalia Jessen Flechsig.

And everything went according to their plan. The fire burned around their property. 

“It was a textbook burn,” said Jessen Fleschig.  

That was not the case for the close to 450 homes destroyed so far in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. As of Thursday morning, Cal Fire says approximately 74,000 were evacuated because of this blaze.

For Cal Fire, residents ignoring evacuation orders is a constant struggle. A spokesperson told me these residents don’t grasp the gravity of the situation and end up making distress calls when their lives are threatened. That pulls resources away from protecting structures. 

That happened this week when a 70-year-old man evacuated as instructed, but then decided to return to his home and ended up getting lost. He survived two nights in the woods before he was rescued. 

Jonathan Cox, Deputy Chief for the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Cal Fire Unit, shared at a news conference how many man hours it took to rescue him. 

“126 man hours, three hours of ambulance time, two hours of helicopter time because we needed a helicopter to extricate the person because of the steep terrain,” said Cox. 

Cal Fire says those who stay behind can often also be mistaken for looters. 

A small patch of green around a water tank that the Jessen Flechsig family were able to save during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
Credit Natalia Jessen Flechsig.

For the father of Natalia Jessen Flechsig, leaving his property in Bonny Doon is not an option. 

“My dad will never leave his property. That's his life. His life's work. There are many, many people up there in Bonny Doon like that,” said Natalia Jessen Fleschig.