Bay Area Fires Reach Containment, but Leave Scars

Jeremy Truesdale, Contributor

The 2020 fire season has been devastating for California. This year alone, the state has seen it’s first and third largest fires in it’s recorded history, 3.4 million acres have burned, 6,247 buildings have been damaged or destroyed, and 26 confirmed fatalities so far. While there had been destructive wildfires earlier in the year, on August 16th, a lightning storm spawned by Tropical Storm Fausto hit Northern California, sparking numerous fires.
On the San Francisco Peninsula, and in the South and East Bay Areas, the storm ignited two complexes of fires: the SCU Complex (which, according to Cal Fire, scorched 396,624 acres of Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus Counties, and as of September 19th is 98% contained) and the CZU Complex (which burned 86,509 Acres of Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties, and as of September 19th is also 98% contained). According to Cal Fire, both complexes have been highly destructive, with the SCU complex destroying 222 buildings, damaging 26, and causing 6 casualties, and the CZU complex destroying 1,490 buildings, damaging 140, and causing two casualties, one fatal.

The Pioneer spoke to Emelia, who did not want her last name shared. She is a shopkeeper in Boulder Creek, California, who, along with her three children that she has been homeschooling due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, were evacuated as the CZU fire in Santa Cruz county exploded. They had only in the past week returned after three weeks of sheltering in a hotel. She related to me the sight of ash coating everything in the small town like snowflakes.
“We were fortunate,” she sighed. “We weren’t affected that badly, especially considering how some folks have lost everything. Everyone’s looking out for each other though, and no one was really hurt, so it could be far worse. This could have been another Camp Fire. People could have been trapped and all that, but Mark [Referencing Mark Bingham, Chief of the Boulder Creek Fire Department] and all of them got everybody out.”

The Pioneer reached out to Chief Mark Bingham of the Boulder Creek Fire Department, but he was unavailable for an interview because “We are super swamped, as the calls for service haven’t slowed down since this whole event started.” Indeed, when The Pioneer was in the area, BCFD, Cal Fire, and other work crews were heavily engaged in clearing debris, making repairs, and other critical duties.
For the part of this journalist, in the early morning of August 16th, I was working on the flightline in Hayward, California and watched the lightning storm slide in from the southwest. I eventually abandoned my duties to retreat indoors as lightning strikes loomed closer and closer. When I ventured outside again, I could see a plume rising from the Livermore/Pleasanton area.
“Can’t tell if it’s smoke or a cloud,” I had remarked on Facebook. Before long, a helicopter pilot replied that it was a fire near Creek Road, and my flight instructor reported extremely heavy smoke out of Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose. For weeks I dealt with the smoke like everyone else but was otherwise unaffected.
However, with altitude comes a new perspective, both literally and figuratively. From 3500 feet over the Calaveras Reservoir, which straddles the border between Alameda and Santa Clara Counties in the San Francisco Bay Area, the expanse of scorched earth caused by the SCU lightning complex fires seems to stretch out for hundreds of mile, disappearing into the hazy brown carpet of wildfire smoke beneath. I was doing a flight lesson on September 3rd, so I neither had a camera at hand nor did I have a free hand with which to capture the vista, but the leagues of blackness are still visible in my mind. Unfortunately, the ground-level photographs that I captured a few days later failed to do the scene justice.
On the behalf of The Pioneer Newspaper, I drove out to Big Basin State Park, or at least as close as I could without running a roadblock, to document the damage and the stories of the people in the CZU complex burn area. I even ventured closer than the park rangers liked by taking my soot-coated Ford Ranger up a charred side trail into Little Basin. What I found was not only the still smoking, tragic devastation of the flames but also the beauty and grace, which I hope to have shared, of the residents who are pulling together and rebuilding. Like a phoenix from ashes, the survivors are rising again.