On a sunny afternoon back in early December, Zoe Banks, a mother of two who works in communications for a Silicon Valley-based tech giant, sent a prescient text to a friend in Boulder Creek. “Sad to let you know we’re moving out of the area,” she wrote. “Come for the fires, stay for the debris flow just isn’t on my mood board for 2021.”
After evacuating during the CZU Lightning Complex fire, and concerned about landslides after rains, Banks and her family put their home across from Boulder Creek Elementary School—where she had envisioned sending her children—on the market. The Santa Cruz mountain town of 2,183 homes and 5,182 residents lies about 18 miles via winding, two-lane roads from Netflix’s headquarters, and less than 30 miles from Apple’s.
“When we bought the house I remember thinking, ‘Are we crazy to buy in the mountains right now?’ But it was two blocks from the fire station, and built in 1863. It stood this long. Neighbors said, ‘It’s close to the fire department; you’ll probably be fine.’”
Structurally, it is. The burn scar has not led to the debris flow that local officials feared—yet. But evacuating the CZU fire left emotional scars that couldn’t be reconciled.
Banks remembers searching online from their temporary landing pads in Capitola and then Reno during the fire to see if their house was still there. “Every time there’s an evacuation, you’re checking Nextdoor and Facebook, hearsay, to try and see if the house is still standing, if there’s debris flow. I don’t have it in me to keep putting my family through that,” she says. Living with her husband, mother, two toddlers and pets—especially during a pandemic—made the thought of another evacuation just too much.
“Looking ahead, do I want to do this all season long? The risk [of debris flow] is there for two to five years,” she says. She remembers being particularly rattled by an L.A. Times article that suggested “these mountains could turn to jelly.”
“Whether there is a risk or not changes depending on who you talk to,” Banks says. “If debris flow wasn’t a thing, we’d still be there. We planned to raise our kids there.”
Banks looked at a map of the U.S., thinking, “Where can we go where we won’t be at risk of debris flow, wildfires, hurricanes or tornadoes?” and landed on Tucson, Arizona.
“No trees, no earthquakes, houses made of bricks,” she says.
The family hit the road, toddlers and chickens in tow.
But as residents like Banks and her family flee, others are rushing in to take their place. Banks’ home received two offers above asking price even though during the first week the house was for sale, there was no power, and mandatory evacuation was ordered in the second week. A neighbor’s house, she says, sold in four days.
Banks understands the appeal. “It’s still part of Silicon Valley,” she says. “It’s a desirable place to live, if you can navigate those threats.”
Meanwhile, with the pandemic-driven advent of remote workers, Silicon Valley real estate agents are seeing an exodus from San Jose and neighboring communities to not only the Santa Cruz Mountains, but also—well, pretty much everywhere.
The South Valley market is hot, with some homes in Morgan Hill and Gilroy selling for $200,000 and even $300,000 over asking price, says Sandy Jamison of Tuscana Properties in San Jose.
“Sellers want to sell but can’t find anything to purchase for themselves,” Jamison says. “Even out of state, places Californians are moving to—Tennessee, Idaho—are having a shortage of inventory.”
Gary Palacios of Morgan Hill-based Compass affiliate Palacios Group says the increased demand for South County properties is driven by “the larger lots, swimming pools, garage space, she sheds. It’s mind-blowing to see how many people also want chickens.”
Jamison has seen other Santa Cruz Mountains residents driven to flee by the recent wildfire evacuations and mudslide threats, just like Banks. “Sellers had to evacuate and it really scared them,” she says. “The thought of losing everything they established. Some packed up and left the area completely.”
Palacios and Jamison say many of their clients are moving to other states like Arizona, Texas and Florida.
“The list goes on and on,” Jamison says. “Clients are looking farther and more distanced from where they work because they don’t have to commute to the office. When everyone can work remotely, it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you have a strong internet connection. We’re finding people are moving to areas they’d rather be.”
However, Palacios says there are emotional consequences for this kind of migration trend. “The decision is easy,” he says, “but you have to say goodbye to family, friends and neighbors, and goodbye to that everyday life. You have to build a whole new community. Nobody really takes that into play.”
And nowhere is guaranteed disaster-proof. Palacios recently heard from a client who moved to Texas only to be stuck in its current winter storm, which has led to dozens of hypothermia deaths, spurred evacuations and left millions without power and clean drinking water.
Despite the Santa Cruz Mountains’ particular unprecedented threats from nature, Palacios remains optimistic about those choosing to move there.
“Covid has taught people it outweighs high-density living,” he says. “There are fires, but fires are normal. We got through the worst. I know we haven’t had an earthquake, but that’s what California is. The Santa Cruz Mountains are gorgeous. You have the space to be who you are, and think.”
Will South County residents face similar ongoing threats from wildfire and debris flow? After all, the East Hills of Morgan Hill also had fire evacuations in August.
“We’ve seen folks leaving Holiday Lake or the mountains in Gilroy because they’re afraid of fires,” says Jamison. “Finley Ridge in Morgan Hill can’t sell because of fires up there.”
In Boulder Creek, Fire Chief Mark Bingham admits that with the lack of mudslides after the most recent storms, the region “dodged a bullet.”
“The weather moved off the Santa Cruz Mountains, where it was projected to hit hard. Salinas and Monterey had weather events we avoided,” he says.
Though Bingham emphasizes he’s “not a weather expert by any means,” he is deeply familiar with the area and its ecosystem, having grown up in nearby Santa Cruz Mountains town Ben Lomond and moved to Boulder Creek at 18. As both a first responder and resident, what he’s seeing now is different from what he remembers, a time when the rains began around Halloween and continued through March—the classic mild, wet winter of Mediterranean climates.
“It doesn’t seem to be that predictable anymore,” he says. Rains arrive less frequently and in higher concentrations. Bingham’s inclination from “growing up here and talking with local and national weather folks” is that the rains we could see will likely be “infrequent but heavy and major showers.”
In terms of risk to local residents, what happened—or in this case, what didn’t—during the last storm can’t be seen as a predictor of what may transpire in the future.
“The recent storm met or exceeded the debris flow rainfall intensity thresholds in some (but not all) areas in the burn scar,” Santa Cruz County Geologist Jeffrey Nolan writes in an email to this news organization, “but no debris flows were observed. The existing models aren’t well calibrated to the local area, so there was always some question as to how accurate the rainfall thresholds would be.”
As the thresholds are reassessed, Nolan points to a partial reason the region escaped the dreaded debris flow this time around: “The ground was very dry prior to this recent storm, and the mountains soaked up the rainfall like a sponge.”
With the ground already wet, though, “it is possible that the future storms will produce a different result.” Nolan’s expectation, given changing weather patterns, “is to see more fire seasons like last summer going forward.”
Some residents like Banks may have had enough, but Santa Cruz Redwood Homes real estate agent Logan Andren has seen that an influx of homebuyers to the Santa Cruz Mountains has not been discouraged, even as insurance is harder to come by.
“I’ve seen stories on Boulder Creek Neighbors, the Facebook community we have up here, always on top of things and willing to lend a hand, of private insurance companies cancelling coverage and refusing to cover new homes,” Andren says. “I just purchased a small home, and had to go with the California FAIR plan to cover fire—an insurance association that offers coverage to high-risk homeowners and renters in the state” who have trouble obtaining it otherwise.
“Inventory is low and we’re in a seller’s market with limited competition,” Andren adds, with interest rates at historic lows and “many people working from home indefinitely.”
Andren has continued to see many “who have high-tech jobs up north—Palo Alto, San Jose, Campbell, Redwood City” moving to the Santa Cruz Mountains for the “ability to own a home for half to a third of what they would be paying in Silicon Valley.” He points to the recent repaving of Highway 9 to Saratoga, with low commute-time traffic even pre-Covid, with its scenic commute as a further allure. A Felton home received 10 offers in a week, sold for above list price, all cash, close to $900,000, Andren says.
“Fires and rain have not deterred them.”
Realtors are required to disclose if listings are in wildfire and debris flow zones, Andren says. “Homes below burn scars tend to be prevalent to mudslides,” he says, “and since so many trees were destroyed, those root systems that were holding up hilly areas have been compromised.” Andren also explains to prospective buyers the regular upkeep those moving in from more urban areas probably haven’t had to deal with—“from blowing the roof to getting the septic system pumped every three to five years.”
What restoration ecologist Dr. Grey F. Hayes would like to see for mountain residents—along with more normal-times maintenance tasks like roof-blowing and septic-system pumping—is specific training on what living in wildfire and potential debris flow zones entails, and modes of responding.
“The central tenet is to have people become indigenous to where they are living,” he says.
Recent debris flow evacuations “went a little broader than they needed to,” Hayes believes, in the wake of some of the fire evacuation orders coming too late.
“Safety first, though,” he says.
The longtime North Coast resident, who lectures on land restoration and management at UC Santa Cruz and at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, points to the deadly 2018 Montecito mudflows and cultural memory of the 1982 Love Creek landslide in Ben Lomond that killed 10 people as precedents for the degree of caution being taken now, along with governmental constructs like “evac periods’” to decide what to do.
“I make it my central focus to think about how people live on the land and respond to these kinds of things,” he says.
Hayes did not evacuate his home to the west of Boulder Creek, a few miles inland from Davenport, during the CZU Lightning Complex fire. But he is uniquely equipped to deal with these catastrophes.
It’s a story he has documented in harrowing detail, replete with a timeline and photographs, in a post titled “CZU Lighting Fire Recap” at Molino Creek Farm’s website.
Still, Hayes is reluctant to share his story out of concern that people without his background in fire and ecology might attempt similar feats: “I stayed put for the fire and protected my house, but it wasn’t in isolation,” he says. “I had a plan. My knowledge was backed up by the Bureau of Land Management fire chief and others who said, ‘You know what you’re doing.’ Do you stay or do you go? It’s dangerous stuff. People have egos that extend beyond their skill level.”
Hayes has trained with Cal Fire and worked on prescribed burns as a natural steward for university lands, so he was prepared for worst-case scenarios. Ultimately, he and a neighbor saved most of the structures on the property.
But it didn’t come without cost, either. His shoulder still hurts from dragging the fire hose. His partners in fighting the fire struggle with PTSD.
Still, he says, we must learn to live with the particularities of a Mediterranean climate—atmospheric rivers, dry summers—which are particularly conducive to wildfires.
Hayes compares Cal Fire to being “right up there with Australian and South African” firefighting forces, not coincidental as “Mediterranean climates are fire climates.”
The large-picture issues are both environmental and systemic. Making conservative decisions about zoning and permitting isn’t part of a capitalist reality. Besides, “humans increase fire frequency wherever we go,” Hayes says.
Solutions, Hayes says, rely on mitigation strategies now. “If we want any trees,” he says, the focus should be on landscape-level management, including “prescribed burns and physical labor to manipulate fuels, so when fires come it’s not as bad.” On the individual level, he suggests “training people to shelter in place” and for “reacting to fire, doing prescribed fire,” as the best course forward.
“We need to become as indigenous as the native peoples were here. Native Americans would have known how to adapt to episodic disasters. We’re not there yet. We as a society should be smart toward reorienting people for safer lives,” says Hayes. That includes paying to relocate those in the path of debris flow, and making zoning changes.
Hayes mentions the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association as a potential avenue for community involvement in mitigation. As described in a late-December 2020 Facebook post on the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County page, this project of the University of California Cooperative Extension in San Benito County, assisted by the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County, is “a new prescribed burning association … starting with some smaller prescribed fires and will hopefully build to larger, community-driven burns over time.”
Now settled in Tucson, Banks can put wildfire out of her mind, but she does anticipate feeling more heat. “Summer will be brutal,” she says, providing a reminder that nowhere, climatologically, gets off scot-free. “It might be 120 degrees.”
While there is no perfect place from which to face down the effects of climate change, and the lifelong Californian calls it heartbreaking to have left, “the relief of not having those worries in the background every time it rains—it’s a nice feeling to not have to be thinking about that in an existential way.”