This week marked a few auspicious events for me and my favorite place on earth, Big Basin Redwoods State Park. First, the park’s recent reopening allowed me to visit and hike (on limited trails) for the first time in two years. Second, this week marks the two-year anniversary of the severe storm that produced mega lightning but paltry rain, resulting in fires, one that obliterated the 18,000-acre Big Basin State Park in less than a day, leaving it 97 percent charred, its infrastructure wholly destroyed.
Yeah. Like I said, it was an auspicious week. Back in 2020, over 900 families in Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Bonny Doon lost their homes in the fire. It’s a week none of us here are ever going to forget.
Here’s how it unfolded.
In the early hours of August 16, 2020, a massive storm blew through unseasonably hot, tinder-dry Northern California, producing 10,000 lightning strikes, 2500 in the greater San Francisco Bay Area alone. Pretty much everyone who lives in the area remembers “that night with the freak lightning storm and winds.” Here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, it was like a light show gone wrong, interspersed with mere drops of rain and wind gusts reaching 70 miles per hour, a terrifying combination. All told, the storm started over 500 fires (some say 650). Several of these fires converged in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and, along with a dire change in wind conditions, what had looked like a handful of manageable fires became a massive, roaring, fast-moving firestorm. Now called the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, it rapidly grew to over 40,000 acres, showing no signs of stopping. We, the residents of Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon, were issued a mandatory evacuation alert on Tuesday night, our cell phones shrieking out that emergency drone intended to trigger your adrenaline, your fear, and hoo boy, did it work. “It’s bad,” my husband reported grimly, coming back inside from his lookout. We live on a ridge and have a panoramic view of the mountains and peaks around us for miles and miles. “Go look,” he told me.
I hurried out to our long driveway and emitted an animal whimper of fear when I caught a glimpse of red in the distance. And not just a glimpse. An entire peak was on fire, ruby-red, lit from within. What was so horrific, beyond the sight of a mountain on fire, upwind of us, was its size, the understanding that there could be no stopping such an enormous, fiery beast. And that it was headed our way.
What I knew as well: fires were converging throughout the greater Bay Area, creating their own Lightning Complex Fires: the LNU; the SCU. CalFire’s capacities and manpower were strained well beyond what they could handle. They had to pick which fires to attack and counter in full force, which part of the region they could save.
Big Basin was not high on that list. Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon were not high on that list.
By the morning of August 19, 2020, Big Basin State Park was, for all intents and purposes, gone. (Many of the houses in Boulder Creek, not to mention our historic downtown, with buildings dating from the 1880s, were saved by the heroic efforts of firefighters from the Boulder Creek volunteer fire department, who were told by CalFire to evacuate, and they said, “nope, not a chance,” and literally saved the town. We are forever indebted to them.)
We all suffered in 2020. Understatement of the year, that. Death and damage happen. Personal case in point: my father died two weeks to the day before the August fire, and we had to put our beloved young cat to sleep (massive kidney failure) 10 weeks after the fire. Most of you out there, reading this, had similar kinds of losses. I know you did. Like the fire that tore through Big Basin, where only three percent was left unaffected, I’m going to bet that statistic applies to humanity in 2020, as well.
But life moves on. After loss, sure, there’s the barren desert (or in this case, burnt-out forest) of grief and emptiness you have to trudge through. But we are wired to live, to thrive. And Big Basin, two years later, is coming back to life. Is it the Big Basin I so loved? Um, no. That, in truth, is the thing that must die: our insistence on having something be exactly the same way it has always been. Life doesn’t work that way. Sooner or later, we all figure that out (or have nature figure it out for us). It hurts. And then we move on. Humans and forests both.
Returning to Big Basin State Park proved to be, surprisingly, an upbeat experience. I thought I’d bawl; I have, lots, since that day, two years ago. The damage to this area is just horrific, and a drive along Empire Grade Road and Highway 236 will tear out even the most stoic of hearts. But at the park itself, that was not the case. After the shock of registering of the burn scar all around you, eventually it’s the green you start to focus on. And I was just so damned glad to be back on the land. “Is Big Basin the land itself?” I mused to my husband, an hour into our walk. “Or is it the trees?” A bit of a koan, that. I decided it was the land itself, its soul now speaking to my soul, reassuring me that loss is a temporal thing.
We spent four hours there — in truth, much longer than I’d expected to last, emotionally. It was both wrenching and uplifting. But if I had to pick one or the other to define the experience, I’d definitely say uplifting.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is back. And I am so very glad.
If you’re interested in visiting Big Basin State Park yourself, it’s by online or phone reservation only. No same-day or drive-up visits are allowed at this time. You can check out all the necessary information HERE, where you can also see some good pics, a more detailed description of what happened, how rehabilitation is going, and who’s collaborating to make it happen. Special shout-out thanks to Friends of the Santa Cruz State Parks, whose considerable volunteer efforts are allowing this park to be run and visited in this rebuilding interim.