Thousands flee CZU Lightning Complex fire Evacuation centers take hundreds of refugees

| Civic Audiotorium


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Story and photos by Charlotte West

Michael Martyn has seen a lot in the 50 some years he’s lived in the San Lorenzo Valley, including the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. “Man, I’ve been through all of it,” he said. He’s experienced other fires, but “we’ve never had one this bad.”

On Wednesday, Martyn was one of thousands of residents from communities in the Santa Cruz mountains forced to flee their homes due to the CZU Lightning Complex fire that has been raging across Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties since Sunday morning. As of Friday, around 64,000 people had been displaced in the two counties. Approximately one in five residents — around 48,000 people — have been evacuated in Santa Cruz county alone, according to county spokesman Jason Hoppin.

More than 275 lightning strikes, combined with a heat wave, high winds and excessively dry conditions, caused multiple fires in Santa Cruz county that converged into a conflagration that now spans nearly 50,000 acres with 0 percent containment.

On Saturday night, “the wind came through like a tornado, breaking all the lamps, then hail and all those lightning strikes,” Martyn said. “And then power went out.”

By Wednesday, he realized that his home in Ben Lomond was directly in the fire’s path. “I packed up everything I could get my car, all my personal stuff that I couldn’t replace,” he said.

Martyn, a musician, stored his guitars at a friend’s house in Santa Cruz. Sitting outside the Civic Center emergency shelter in downtown Santa Cruz, he said he slept in his car on Wednesday night. “The plan is to take it moment by moment,” he said. “And if all fails, I’ll stay in the car again.”

In Santa Cruz county, the evacuation orders began in communities such as Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon, and have now extended to the Santa Cruz city limits on the westside. Campus officials declared a state of emergency and on-campus residents at UCSC were evacuated on Thursday night and told to expect not to return for at least two weeks. As of Friday morning, the fire was about a mile north of upper campus.

Officials also ordered all of Scotts Valley, west of Highway 17, to evacuate, on Thursday evening. The town of 11,000 is the biggest city in the county besides Santa Cruz. With the exception of the UCSC campus, no areas within the city of Santa Cruz were under an evacuation warning or order as of Friday morning.

As of Friday morning, at least 50 buildings were confirmed destroyed, although the number is presumed to be in the triple digits, fire officials said. At a press conference on Friday morning, Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Chris Clark said “it could, potentially, be weeks” before many residents are allowed to return to their homes.

Martyn said the only way he knows his house is still standing is by calling his answering machine. “If my message machine answers that means I still have power and my house hasn’t burned,” he said.

Because of COVID-19, there is no single evacuation site in Santa Cruz county, which has posed challenges for coordination. “One of the things we could really use is more communication between shelters,” said Patricia Poritzky, a local resident who spent Thursday volunteering at the Civic Center shelter in downtown Santa Cruz.

“I have the day off of work and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it,” she said.

On Thursday afternoon, the Civic Center shelter was at capacity with 35 tents set up in its auditorium for a maximum of 75 occupants.

Hoppin said that more than 200 people are sheltering at the county fairgrounds in Watsonville, which was also full as of Friday morning. There are currently nine shelters set up with more expected to come online Friday. “We are housing over 800 people at the moment,” Hoppin said.

Evacuees are being encouraged to seek shelter with friends and family if possible to allow space at shelters for those who have no other options. The county has also issued a travel advisory asking non-residents not to visit Santa Cruz to alleviate traffic. Visitors have also been asked to vacate hotels and vacation rentals in order to help house displaced residents.

As of noon on Friday, at least seven shelters still had capacity. The parking lot and grounds of Coastlands Aptos Foursquare Church, at 280 State Park Dr. in Aptos, is open to cars, RVs and tents. Cabrillo College has also opened up its gymnasium.

The Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter is sheltering pets of wildfire evacuees who are temporarily unable to care for their animals, but encourages people to explore other options first because space is limited.

At the Civic Center in downtown Santa Cruz, volunteers are asking everyone entering the building to sanitize their hands, have their temperature taken, and wear masks.

Poritzky said that donations such as small toiletries and grab-and-go snacks like granola bars are particularly useful. “We may end up needing toilet paper. We have it right now, but I’m guessing that might change,” she said.

Donations such as large family tents, bottled water, and hand sanitizer are currently being directed to the Santa Cruz County Warehouse at 1082 Emeline, Santa Cruz. Clothing should be brought to Goodwill locations.

Martyn said he’s keeping his fingers crossed he’ll still have a home to go back to. “We’re waiting it out,” he said. “That’s all you can do.”

More information on resources here:

A map of current shelters here (click each for status):

Map of evacuated zones:

Fire updates for UCSC:

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Charlotte West

About Charlotte West

Charlotte West is a freelance journalist who covers education, criminal justice, housing, and politics. She is a member of the Education Writers Association and was a 2019 Kiplinger Fellow.