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Lightning Complex

Started: 2020-09-01 19:46:19

Submitted: 2020-09-01 22:57:55

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator lives in the wildland-urban interface near the CZU Lightning Complex Fire

As soon as the power came back at my house at Loma Prieta at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains, I started wondering if I should be worrying about the massive wildfire burning on the north corner of Santa Cruz County.

The overnight lightning storm that knocked out my power also set off numerous wildfires across the state. When I arrived home with my kids on Sunday afternoon, 16th August, I could see the plume of one of the fires burning near Monterey (either the Carmel Fire or the River Fire) 40 miles away across Monterey Bay. But soon it became obvious that there was a much closer threat: the CZU Lightning Complex fire, burning in the forest north of Santa Cruz. ("CZU" is the abbreviation for the local CalFire wildland fire-fighting unit, covering Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties. This was only one of the lightning complex fires burning in Northern California, each named after the local CalFire unit: the SCU Lightning Complex burned on the east side of the bay, and the LNU Lightning Complex burned the mountains east of Napa Valley.)

I signed up for the county's emergency alerts, because I didn't have a land line and wasn't sure whether I could count on reverse 911 push notifications on my phone. I made my list of what we'd want to take with us if we were evacuated. If we did evacuate the mountain, we'd head to the temporary apartment in Cupertino my new employer was still paying for; it would be cozy but it'd be better than a hotel.

As the fire spread the towns in the San Lorenzo Valley were evacuated, and then the evacuation zone grew to cover the city of Scotts Valley with a warning and then a mandatory evacuation. For a day the wind shifted to the south, blowing the fire towards the city of Santa Cruz itself; then the wind shifted to the north, up the coast into San Mateo County, away from the populated areas in Santa Cruz.

Sun sets through wildfire haze above radar tower
Sun sets through wildfire haze above radar tower

From my vantage point, fifteen miles away from the fire, I smelled smoke and watched the sky grow pale and the sunlight turn a pallid yellow. When I woke during the night and smelled smoke I wondered if the wind was blowing the fire in my direction. Ash fell on the deck, and through the open window onto my laptop sitting on my desk.

Wildfire ash fallen on laptop
Wildfire ash fallen on laptop

The fire never seriously threatened my part of the mountain, but I couldn't help but wonder about our evacuation route: our obvious route down the mountain would lead us straight into the path of the oncoming fire, if the winds were blowing just right to push the fire across Highway 9, up the other side of the valley, through the city of Scotts Valley, across Highway 17 and into the Summit area. But there were other ways off the mountain, so I wasn't worried.

Loma Prieta driveway under wildfire haze
Loma Prieta driveway under wildfire haze

Just as our power came back my brother Willy called from Napa County, where the LNU Lightning Complex fire was threatening his home in Angwin. At that moment he was under an evacuation warning; within a couple of hours the warning was upgraded to an order, so he borrowed a car (in a stroke of terrible timing, his was in the shop) and drove down to stay with us: evacuating one massive fire, driving by another massive fire, stopping near enough to a third fire that I couldn't guarantee that we wouldn't be evacuated too.

That night — Wednesday night, the 19th of August — I stepped out onto my deck and surveyed the nearby fires. I could just barely make out the glow from the fires to the south, across Monterey Bay from me; but what really stood out was the ominous red glow of the CZU Lightning Complex fire, split into two sections: one in the vicinity of Felton; and one in the vicinity of Ben Lomond. During the day I can see the long ridge running on the west side of the San Lorenzo Valley; by night it appeared that the fire was just on the other side of the ridge.

CZU Lightning Complex Fire visible from Loma Prieta
CZU Lightning Complex Fire visible from Loma Prieta

I began checking Purple Air to get an idea of the local air quality. Depending on where the wind was blowing I our air quality varied from perfect to dreadful. (Sometimes we were the only place with good air quality for miles in any direction because we were high enough to sit above the low-hanging clouds of smoke.) I begun to gauge the air quality by how far I could see: sometimes the smoke hung in the valleys like mist, sometimes the smoke obscured the hillside forming the Soquel Demonstration State Forest. On Saturday evening the air quality plummeted: I could no longer see the state forest three miles away, and Purple Air showed that the PM2.5 reading for the nearest sensor was above 600 — which was ridiculously bad air quality, high enough to be off the chart. Walking through the house I could smell the acrid stench of smoke coming in through every open window, filling my lungs with its terrible burning and making my eyes water. I closed every window I found and cranked our air purifiers up as high as they would go and watched the indicators gradually walk down from red to orange to blue as they cleaned the particulates out of the air.

Smoke rising above the CZU Lightning Complex Fire
Smoke rising above the CZU Lightning Complex Fire

After Saturday night we were no longer threatened by the cataclysmic smoke; and gradually the firefighters gained control of the fire. By the time they lifted the evacuation on Scotts Valley, late in the week, I was confident this fire was unlikely to affect us (though the bigger threat would be a new fire, sparked by lightning or some other source, starting upwind of us). I continued to monitor the air quality, and close the windows when I smelled smoke; but for us at least we were able to gradually get back to normal. Willy's evacuation in Angwin was downgraded to a warning on Friday afternoon, after he'd been staying with us for more than a week; he went home on Sunday, as firefighters built a containment line around Angwin.

I was, for two weeks, distracted from the chronic background crisis of COVID-19 by the much more immediate crisis of a wildfire upwind of me, just a week after I moved into the wildland-urban interface. For two weeks, even as I was worried about my new home (and the quality of the air I was breathing) it was nice to worry about a crisis that I felt confident would be over in a matter of weeks, not years.

I actually did marry you for more than just life time tech support!
- Gem Stone-Logan, via e-mail requesting tech support