I write to you today from La Honda, California, one of the small black dots that pock the maps of unincorporated San Mateo County. It is early morning now, but even in the pre-dawn darkness, I can sense the scars the CZU Lightning Complex Fire has left on this mountain community I have called home for 12 years. Smoke blots out the nearly full Corn Moon. The ever-present scent of wood burning makes it impossible to know if the threat is behind the containment lines Cal Fire etched into the landscape 10 miles from here as the crow flies. This drives nervous folk to dial the volunteer fire brigade and sets off the wail of the siren at the headquarters down the road at all hours of day and night. In fact, people are constantly awake, consulting the National Weather Service forecast for shifts in the wind and drops in the dew point — portents of additional risk, increased threat…of more fire to come as the “traditional” fire season begins.
Anna Wiener reported to “The New Yorker” from San Francisco, a city 45 miles from the northern tip of the recently evacuated zones, that the CZU event began on Tuesday, August 18th, when a thunderstorm rained thousands of lightning strikes down upon a forested area that abuts Silicon Valley. That front actually moved through around 3 AM on Sunday, August 16th. The electrical display was terrible in its beauty: eerie and powerful, otherworldly, yet leaving an all-too-apparent and almost immediate effect on the ground in Butano State Park, a beautiful expanse of redwood, oak, and pine that encompasses the elevations and canyons southeast of Pescadero, an agricultural town on the coastside bordered by Highway 1.
We learned through posts to the La Honda Google Group and calls logged on the San Mateo County Fire Dispatch web page that at least one fire had been sparked in Butano. Over the next 48 hours, two additional hot spots sprang up in areas not easily accessible to heavy equipment and personnel due to the steep, remote terrain. And on that fateful Tuesday Ms. Wiener wrote of, those three incidents united. Northwesterly air currents fanned the flames, driving an out-of-control burn south into the towns of Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond. We were much luckier to the north; the fire just set to creeping across the hills, through part of Pescadero into Loma Mar, where some locals fought to keep it at bay while others set up lawn chairs on the grade and watched the fire crawl toward them.
My partner and I own a three-bedroom, one-bath house on Memory Lane. We share this space with two cats we keep indoors to protect them from the mountain lions, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, and raccoons who inhabit the neighborhood alongside us. Deer nibble from our plum and crabapple trees. The Steller’s jays and woodpeckers flit amongst our buckeye oaks; hummingbirds frequent the fuchsia bushes. Fat gray squirrels feast on the acorns all season long. We used to live the lives of urban apartment dwellers in San Francisco, but a baker’s dozen years ago, I grew weary of sharking for street parking spaces for up to an hour after work, rampant vandalism, increasing municipal regulations. I implored my partner to consider moving out of the city to some place where we’d get more for our money than a cramped one-bedroom situation. When we visited La Honda one Sunday on a fact-finding mission, we stopped for a beer in the local biker haunt, Applejack’s. An actual, honest-to-goodness bar fight broke out, complete with a visit from the Sheriffs. I knew we’d found our home.
So when we read the writing on the wind that Tuesday evening — the smoke, the ash, the sirens — we leapt into self-preservation mode and began the difficult process of deciding what was worth loading into our cars to save. We initially staked out a friend’s vacation home north in Bolinas as our safe haven, but the Woodward Fire in Point Reyes National Seashore began to press there so that they, too, were under evacuation warning. We spent an extremely restless night compiling a list of other housing options and waiting for word to evacuate. By Wednesday morning, we’d secured a room at an extended stay hotel in San Carlos on the Peninsula. They allowed cats for a fee, and offered both air conditioning and a kitchenette. We moved in that afternoon and stayed a week. The official evacuation order for La Honda was handed down on Thursday, August 20th. We ended up displaced for a total of eight days. We remain amongst the lucky ones.
Link to Anna Wiener’s piece:
[To be continued…]