‘It’s eerie’: Behind the lines of the CZU August Lightning fires

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With wildfire smoke blanketing the Santa Cruz Mountains in a hazy fog, Andy Kerr, co-owner of Alice’s Restaurant, loads up his truck three times a day and ventures beyond the road closure signs near his restaurant to deliver food to people who need it.

On Sunday morning, Almanac reporter Kate Bradshaw went with him behind the lines of the CZU August Lighting Complex fires as he brought breakfast burritos to volunteers stationed at the La Honda Fire Station, checked on La Honda residents who have chosen to stay behind rather than evacuate their homes, and ventured through the smoke-choked and winding roads to Pescadero to bring provisions to coastside firefighters. Almanac visual journalist Magali Gauthier joined Kerr on Tuesday.

Kerr and his brother Jamie both used to be volunteer firefighters with the Skylonda fire station, just down the street from Alice’s. He described the wildfires as apocalyptic, agreeing with what fire officials have been saying over the past week: These fires are unprecedented.

“I was born and raised here and I’ve never seen anything like this. This is 10 times worse than anything I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Kerr’s first stop was the La Honda Fire Station. There, he delivered 13 breakfast burritos to a grateful, if somewhat weary group of volunteers. He promised to return at lunch with 20 of the restaurant’s famous Harley burgers.

While some food donations have come directly from Alice’s, he said, a number of community members and loyal patrons of Alice’s have donated money to help the restaurant feed first responders and firefighters, enabling them to provide at least 200 meals since the fire began. By Sunday evening, the restaurant had raised about $25,000, according to a Facebook post.

On other days, Kerr also makes meal deliveries to seniors through the Great Plates Delivered program, a FEMA-authorized program in California in which restaurants provide meals to seniors who are encouraged to stay at home because of their heightened risk of developing complications from COVID-19. Some seniors have chosen not to, or are unable to evacuate and have continued to receive meals from Kerr.

While at the La Honda fire station, one local resident stopped by and gave Kerr a piece of mail to send on her behalf from the other side of the road closures.

Kerr’s next stop was to deliver provisions to the household of La Honda resident Carole Williams.

“It’s eerie,” she said. Their family’s car was packed, and they remain ready to go if the conditions worsen, she said. But they also know that once they leave the evacuation zone, they won’t be let back in.

In the meantime, they’re doing what they can behind the lines to help. Williams’ family members spent Saturday fighting fires in Loma Mar and are keeping an eye on their neighborhood to guard against looters. With neighbors’ permission, they removed signs that some people had left on their doors when they evacuated, Williams said. The signs told firefighters that they had left and thanked them for their efforts, but also made them potential looting targets, she said.

Her son, Colin, told The Almanac that he and some friends from rural county areas had avoided the front lines but volunteered their time and efforts to help fight the fires over the weekend. They brought out trucks with hundreds of gallons of water and pumps. “We were there if they needed us,” he said.

“Knowing how spread out Cal Fire is, it’s worrisome. … I understand what it’s like to be shorthanded. You want to be there in case you can be helpful,” he added. “If a fire is ripping through your hometown, the last thing you want to do is sit outside of it and think about it.”

Officials from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office have said they are also patrolling for potential looters.

After making the delivery at the Williams’ home, Kerr moved on to his next destination: the fire station in Pescadero. He deftly navigated the many turns of Pescadero Creek Road, which were covered in a thick white haze. The smoke made it difficult to see farther than about 50 feet ahead – far worse conditions than he’d experienced the previous day, when the road was clear, Kerr said.

As he drove, he talked about how the differences between rural and urban life, and about how different approaches to firefighting are manifesting in the community.

Not relying on authorities for help is a way of life for many people in the far rural stretches of the county, he said. People are used to relying on their neighbors and friends instead.

Many families have been in the area for generations – some descended from the area’s original homesteaders – and feel deep ties to their homes and land. Some are taking matters into their own hands, felling trees and clearing debris on the ground to protect their properties.

If you think about how fires were fought a century ago, Kerr said, they were an all-hands-on-deck kind of deal. Everyone dropped what they were doing to step up and help.

In an area where the local fire brigade is volunteer-run, this community’s can-do ethos may be making it even harder for locals to leave their beloved homes to the professionals – even as firefighters battling this blaze have consistently, and for good reason, urged untrained locals to stay safe by staying out of the evacuation zones.

On Sunday night, officials had to rescue six people in San Mateo County who had gone back into the evacuation zone to check on their properties, said Sergeant Sal Zuno of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office on Monday morning.

Kerr then arrived at the fire station in Pescadero where he delivered food to three firefighters there. They thanked him profusely for the previous night’s delivery: ice cream sundaes, which which were devoured with gusto by the exhausted crew, they said.

In downtown Pescadero, Quinn Alexander, who works at Alice’s, said he splits his time between La Honda and Pescadero, but hadn’t left the area yet. He said he wanted to stay to defend his house, but would leave if the fires got closer. He said he’d received a warning that the power would be shut off if fire breached a nearby ridge.

Rather than go back on smoke-filled Pescadero Creek Road, Kerr took Stage Road toward San Gregorio (stopping briefly to let this carsick reporter out – an occupational hazard of note-taking on curvy roads.)

The next stop was the San Gregorio General Store, where owner KC Hatcher is running the only store within about 10 miles on the coastside.

“It’s been a little stressful,” she said.

Since COVID-19 started, Hatcher’s family reconfigured the store and is shifting its focus from tourists to locals as a provider of essential items. Since the fires started, they’ve been providing free sandwiches, baked goods and coffee to first responders and animal rescuers.

She described another challenge that some coastside residents have been experiencing as a result of the fires. Some residents live in areas that are not subject to evacuation orders, yet the roads they live along, and have to use to access critical services, are closed. She said she was planning to pick up groceries she had ordered to supply the store from Half Moon Bay because it wasn’t clear that the delivery driver could get to her.

From San Gregorio, Kerr headed back to Alice’s, where he planned to load the truck back up for the lunchtime delivery round.

Back at the restaurant, things felt surprisingly normal, despite the heavy smoke in the air.

Taylor Sweeney, a young Alice’s employee who lives down the street from the restaurant, said her parents were keeping a close eye on the evacuation orders, but hadn’t received any notices to leave yet.

A few customers came for brunch – taking advantage of the restaurant’s reputation for staying open through trying circumstances – while others were there for a short respite from the chaos the fires have wrought.

In the restaurant’s hazy parking lot, Suzanna Pierce said she lives near Felton in Santa Cruz County and had evacuated multiple areas, first leaving her home for Scotts Valley, and then going to Soquel, where she’s been camping. But the smoke was bad there, too.

“We’re surrounded by fires,” she said.


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