BOULDER CREEK – When authorities ordered Noah Standridge to evacuate his home amid the CZU Lightning Complex fire two weeks ago, he refused to flee. Instead, he stayed behind to knock back the flames encroaching on his hilltop Boulder Creek house – wearing nothing but a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.
Late last week, Standridge stood on the porch of his home – encircled by an entire neighborhood burned to the ground. He recalled how slowly the fire moved, and is convinced that much of that destruction was totally preventable.
“I used a water-filled flower pot and my feet to keep it back,” said Standridge, a former lecturer at Stanford University, husband and father of five children ranging in ages from 6 to 17. “The only reason my house is the only one still standing is because I stayed here to defend it.”
Standridge and scores of other residents throughout Boulder Creek and Bonny Doon defied evacuation orders as the CZU fire moved through the Santa Cruz Mountains during the last two weeks of August. They are now stuck in the mountains, reluctant to leave, fearing that public safety officers won’t let them return home if they travel out to secure food, water and other necessities.
Usually in California, a fire blows through and homeowners are allowed back to their homes – or what is left of them – in a few days. In the CZU fire, the flames are so spread out and in such rugged territory, the process is different. Evacuation orders are slowly being lifted for some areas, but authorities have suggested that the hardest hit parts of the fire zone could be shut down for weeks – as power lines and roads are repaired.
Many, like Standridge, are living off of non-perishable food supplies left in their homes – such as peanut butter, cans of sardines and ramen noodles. Others, like Dutch Schultz, a retired electrician who lives in Bonny Doon, have ponds of bass, blue gill and crawdads, as well as chickens and fruiting trees, with which to supplement their diets.
“I’m not a survivalist,” said Schultz, as he guided a team from the L.A. Times around his property. “But I always have made sure to have six months of supplies for six people. Just seems prudent.”
But the outside world is calling to them.
Standridge, for instance, is a Stage 4 colon cancer patient, and he needs to get chemotherapy in Santa Rosa next week. If he misses his appointment, he risks both his health and his ability to stay in the clinical trial.
“But if I can’t get back in, I can’t defend my home,” he said, which he noted is not in imminent danger. As of Tuesday, the 85,000-acre fire had destroyed 1,200 structures and was 43% contained, with the flames recently dampened somewhat by cooler air and a heavy marine layer, that has been leaving dew on Standridge’s deck.
As he drove around the immediate neighborhood, however, he pointed to smoldering roots and flaming tree stumps, which he said could light a passing leaf on fire – potentially sending embers to his home.
“There’d be nobody here to protect this if I was shut out,” he said.
Schultz, who said he is tending to several senior citizens in his area who also refused to evacuate, is aching for company.
He’s lonely without his wife, TV or the internet. He’s relegated to watching old DVDs – admitting sheepishly to a visitor that he’s rewatched the movies “Tommy Boy” and “Princess Bride” several times over the last two weeks.
“But, if I leave, who’d be here to watch my house and my neighbors’ homes?” he said, referring to the seniors he cares for.
He said he initially left his home when the evacuation orders were first issued, but came back two days later.
The neighborhood around Schultz’s property, which abuts Empire Grade – a long, winding road that runs along a ridge running from just west of Boulder Creek down to Santa Cruz – was scorched: Trees blackened by the fire, the ground a uniform layer of gray ash, and the skeletons of burned cars, propane tanks and outdoor sheds littering the horizon.
The fire took a seemingly haphazard path – whole neighborhoods were destroyed, with one house or garden untouched among the carnage.
It’s left even seasoned firefighters perplexed.
“It’s crazy looking, right?” said Jim Czerniez, a Santa Clara County Fire Department captain, speculating the fires followed the path of erratic winds.
He and his crew were on the scene soon after the fires began Aug. 16. He said a few nights later, strong winds swept up the fire, and that a terrifying wall pushed along Empire Grade, burning everything in its path.