Evacuees Reflect on Loss and Uncertainty as CZU Fires Burn

“This is the worst-case scenario,” said Karrie Gaylord, an evacuee of the Santa Cruz Mountains fires known as the CZU Complex.

“This is the fire that we’ve all feared. We have neighbors that have been there, 40, 50 years. There have been two fires in the area, but nothing like this. It was a confluence of the worst factors all at once—insane heat, fuel everywhere, low humidity.”

Those factors, combined with high winds and atypical dry lightning strikes, made for a frightening perfect storm last weekend—one that ignited the CZU Lightning Complex fires and subsequently fanned their flames.

Similar fires are raging from the Salinas Valley to Napa.

After clearing out, Gaylord and her boyfriend Ryan Eastwood reserved a hotel room. They stopped by the evacuation center at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium Thursday with their two dogs to pick up toiletries and food. Eastwood says he had watched on a webcam the night before as their neighborhood in Bonny Doon went up in smoke.

Although they’ve lost nearly everything they owned, Eastwood says he and Gaylord are more fortunate than some of their neighbors. He and Gaylord are still young, they say, and they’ll have time to build a brand new home from scratch.

At this point, they’ll still have to decide whether or not they’re interested in doing so.

Tentative Solutions

As of an update issued this morning, the CZU Lightning Complex fires have burned 63,000 acres and prompted 64,000 evacuations. Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, two separate fires are now on the list of three largest fires in California history.

Santa Cruz County’s evacuation shelters, including the Civic Auditorium, are now full. Spaces remain at several other sites, including Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, Simpkins Family Swim Center and Lakeview Middle School. A full list of local resources is available on Santa Cruz County’s website. San Mateo County has set up shelters at Half Moon Bay High School and San Mateo County Event Center.

Inside the Civic, crews set up tents, allowing evacuees to shelter in isolation and avoid spreading the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

In the auditorium lobby, Lenora Fitzmaurice, 78, sits patiently, curious where she’ll be going next. The Boulder Creek resident, who lives on Two Bar Road, was with other medically vulnerable evacuees, while they waited to be transferred to other facilities specifically catered toward those most susceptible to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was Fitzmaurice’s caregiver who first called for law enforcement to help evacuate her. Fitzmaurice says a deputy arrived and told her, “It’s time to go.” Fitzmaurice had enough time to grab one tote bag before getting in the car.

At this point, she’s taking everything one minute at a time.

“I am accepting and trying to understand and helping when I can,” she says. “And I’m wondering where I’m gonna go next.”

Great Escape

A few yards from Fitzmaurice, Buzz Tatro, a two-time cancer survivor, sat staring into the distance, notebook at his side. A bout with throat cancer five years ago left Tatro unable to eat or speak. A gastronomy tube pumps food into his stomach. He communicates with others by writing down notes.

Tatro said the fire seemed to come out of nowhere Wednesday morning.

“I saw it coming the night before but slowly. I thought maybe there was a chance,” he wrote in his notebook.

Suddenly, the fire was breathing down on his house. It got within 20 feet of him, he says, as he tried to fight it off with a garden hose. Although his neighbors got out sooner than he did, Tatro says no one told him to evacuate. “I live in the middle of 50 acres, so nobody looked, I guess,” he wrote.

At the end of the day, he feels lucky to have survived the experience. Tatro, who recently celebrated a birthday, called being alive “a pretty nice birthday present.”

I asked Tatro if I might give him my email address, so he could get in touch if he had anything else come up. He shrugged quizzically, and started scribbling again in his notebook, now one of his few worldly possessions.

“I don’t have anything,” he wrote.

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