How We Saved Our Neighborhood from a Wildfire
With the CZU Lightning Complex fire bearing down on them, a rogue group of citizens banded together to stay and defend their homes in the mountains above Santa Cruz, California. Here's how they fought the fire—and won.
In the early-morning hours of Sunday, August 16, a thunderstorm unleashed more than 12,000 dry lightning strikes across central and Northern California. These strikes caused dozens of fires from Santa Cruz to Half Moon Bay, a forested, mountainous expanse, and came to be known as the CZU Lightning Complex fire. At press time, this fire had consumed more than 85,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,500 structures. Justin Robinson, 44, a lifelong resident of Bonny Doon, an unincorporated community in the hills above Santa Cruz, got an order to evacuate on Tuesday, August 18. Robinson operates his family’s well-service business and maintains the water systems on nearly every local property. Knowing he had intimate familiarity of the local terrain, and that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) was understaffed, Robinson defied the evacuation notice and stayed to protect the homes in his community. The following is a firsthand account of his experience, as told to his friend, Dain Zaffke.
The morning after we were evacuated, I left my wife, Jenny, and our two daughters, who are 15 and 17, in Santa Cruz and went back to my house in Bonny Doon with my friend Josh. The first thing I did was get on my dirt bike and ride out to the highest point. I was the first one in my area to get eyes on the fire. That’s when I saw how slowly it was moving—it was just creeping through the forest. (Later we’d learn that it was moving at about a foot an hour.) I jammed back and said to Josh, “Dude, we can save our neighbors’ houses.”
I know my woods better than anyone. I was born on that mountain, and I’ve spent most of my 44 years riding these trails on my mountain bike and my dirt bike, trail-running, and exploring with my wife and daughters. As a mountain-bike trail builder and rider, I have an intimate knowledge of the contours of the forest, of each ridge and each drainage. Managing the area’s well service, I also know most of the properties and their water sources. Although I don’t have any history fighting fires, I had a pretty good idea right away on how we could divert this slow-moving fire.
Initially there were just four of us with hand tools (chainsaws, shovels, and mcleods) cutting six-foot-wide fire breaks—clearing leaves and vegetation down to bare dirt. By midafternoon we had neighbors’ bulldozers and tractors, and over the next few days our little brigade grew to 20 people. Right away we could see that what we were doing was working; the fire was burning right up to the line that we cut, then it followed our line down the canyon instead of engulfing the homes.
Many residents up here don’t have fire insurance. After Napa’s Tubbs fire in 2017, insurance companies started dropping us. That was a big part of why we wanted to defend our side of the mountain. And with the size of this CZU Lightning Complex fire, not to mention the other fires burning across Northern California, we knew Cal Fire was really understaffed. We were on our own without any Cal Fire support until the fourth day, with one exception: toward the end of the second day, two Cal Fire battalion chiefs came out with two Santa Cruz County sheriff’s deputies. Cal Fire drove up in a pickup truck with no equipment—they were just there to tell us to leave. We showed them the progress we’d made, and they were like, “That’s cool, but you have to get out of here.” The two sheriffs were more supportive. Although one of the major problems they have to deal with is rescuing people who refuse to evacuate, under their breath they thanked us for saving these homes. Right in the middle of this exchange, their radios started blowing up about Feather Lane (about 7.5 miles away) being at risk. One sheriff burst into tears. She was like, “That’s where I live, I have to go!”
Right away we could see that what we were doing was working; the fire was burning right up to the line that we cut, then it followed our line down the canyon instead of engulfing the homes.
I was on the phone and texting with Jenny and my daughters throughout each day. I made it clear that we’d get out of there the first moment we felt like we were in danger. We kept getting reports from friends in town that were almost always erroneous. It was like the social-media and satellite images that people were obsessed with were completely off. With every warning, I’d get on the dirt bike and check on the fire. We spent a ton of time doing that—going out to check new areas after getting reports from town. I think it was crucial that we had three dirt bikes and spotters constantly. We couldn’t get proper information unless we saw it ourselves.
There were certainly scary moments. The closest we got to losing a home was my neighbor John Peck’s house. The fire had made its way into the steep canyon below. We’d built a fire line the day before and went back to check it at 6 A.M. We saw 300-foot flames in the redwood canopy and thought, Oh, this place is gone. But somehow the structure wasn’t catching on fire. Then his propane tank ignited. It was a 40-to-50-foot flame that burned about 20 feet wide for an hour and a half straight, until the whole 500-gallon propane tank was done. He had a cinder-block wall around the tank, so the heat wasn’t blowing toward his house, but the eaves of the roof caught on fire in the last five minutes before the tank stopped burning. We had a water truck on it by that point, so as soon as it went out, we hit the eaves with water and saved the house. It was so hot that his vinyl windows melted, but the structure didn’t burn. It was incredible.
To be honest, there was something addicting about fighting this fire. There’s so much adrenaline, so much of an endorphin rush. I was completely in the moment for six days straight. I was digging fire breaks, dropping trees and bucking them up, snuffing out spot fires, and every couple of hours scouting on my dirt bike. I spent so much time wearing my Dakine Builder backpack—loaded with my electric chainsaw, two extra batteries, and my CamelBak bladder—that my shoulders are still raw. I got rocked by 20 yellow jackets in my pants, I burned my hands from grabbing hot things. But there was no slowing down. I didn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time, and I didn’t need an alarm to get up.
There were definitely spiritual moments. Being in the redwoods and watching them burn, it’s amazing how peaceful it could be at times. It was like the forest was saying thank you. The destruction is devastating, but the cleansing has its place. And it can be mesmerizing. When the chinquapin trees burn, they sound like jet engines taking off. It’s so incredibly loud for 10 to 15 seconds, and then the trees are still standing, but they’re just skeletons. We watched about 30 of these go up, one after another. A couple of them had paper wasps’ nests in them, so the tree would flare up and burn out, and all that would be left were these little fireballs with the wasp nests burning.
The butterflies were the craziest and most surreal experience. They were just coming out of the forest, leading the fire. They’d land on me, land on my tools, like they just wanted to be around humans. That must have happened a hundred times.
On day four, Cal Fire sent in a crew. It seemed like they finally had confidence that our area was worth defending. The guy in charge of the whole fire—of everybody and all operations—came up and showed us maps. My house was always outside the fire line, but one area we likely saved was surrounded on three sides. He said, “Well, I can see that you guys have created an island in this fire, and we’re here to help you protect it.” Another fire captain saw our fire break down into the canyon and said, “Who the fuck cut that fire line?” Josh pointed at me, and the captain said, “That guy just taught a fucking clinic on how to cut a fire line on a steep hillside!” But I didn’t know what I was doing. I went in there first to drag the line and scratch in the fire break, but I had friends helping me buff it out: Alex Werk, Kalen Waterman (a San Francisco city firefighter), my neighbor Kaethe Hostetter. Side note on Kaethe: She lives and works in clogs, these super nice, German leather clogs. She was on this steep hillside in her clogs, wailing away on the fire line.
We had a few old-timers, guys in their seventies—a classic carpenter, an arborist, and a Vietnam vet—and these guys just wouldn’t back down. We also had help from my friend Nick Weighall, who actually works for Cal Fire but took time off from fighting the fire in San Jose to work off the clock with us in Bonny Doon. The people here are just hearty and skilled in so many ways, with tractors, chainsaws, grading, knowing flora and fauna. We really tried to be conscious of our environment. We have Santa Cruz cypress trees, they’re federally endangered trees that only grow right here. So we made our fire breaks around these big old cypresses because we wanted to save them.
It was gratifying when we earned the respect of the Cal Fire crews. I actually just saw both sheriff’s deputies again today, six days after the fire started, and they were just beaming, so stoked that both of their homes survived. We literally cut a fire line around one of the sheriff’s homes. He was like, “You guys were awesome.”
I’m sure there will be some people who blame Cal Fire or threaten lawsuits. But there were so many fires across California, their hands were tied. They just didn’t have enough personnel. I’m certain, without question, that some of our other neighbors would not have homes if we weren’t there. I’m not trying to make it sound heroic, our neighborhood is just a small part of the Bonny Doon community. I know others who did similar things to save their homes and neighbors’ homes, and unfortunately, I know a number of people who lost everything.
But I would never encourage others to do what I did. It was so circumstantial. For one, the fire that approached my side of Bonny Doon was very different from the fire that leveled the homes on Braemoor Drive, about ten miles north. That was a firestorm; our fire was moving slowly and relatively easy to contain. We also had a lot of luck, favorable weather, a capable crew, access to equipment, multiple escape routes, and an intimate knowledge of the terrain. That’s how we were able to defend the 25 homes in our neighborhood.