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California Wildfires: CZU Lighting Complex

In the early morning hours of Sunday August 16, 2020, I was awoken by the low thud of thunder. A few minutes later, white light temporarily illuminated my bedroom. A summer thunder and lighting storm! This was a rare occurrence on the California coast.

I lept out of bed and headed to the deck in the same spirit that John Muir climbed up a Doug-fir to experience a windstorm! In this case my survival instinct prevented me from climbing to the top of the tallest tree in an electrical storm. Instead I stood in the open doorway.

I looked upriver and another flash of lighting silhouetted the sloping tree-line and then a clap of thunder filled the darkness. I heard the first drop of rain hit the deck and I reached my hand out from the doorway to feel the life-giving rain. It rained for a very short time, this was a dry thunderstorm.

I stood in the threshold of the back door until that survival instinct willed me to close the door and return to bed. Of course I couldn’t sleep in all the climatic excitement. The center of the storm cell was now moving over my cabin. One clap of thunder was so close that it rattled my bedside lamp.

The whole storm lasted for about 30 to 45 minutes. At that time, little did I know, that this storm sparked wildfires that would create more damage in Santa Cruz County than the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

I finally drifted off to sleep and when I awoke and looked out across the deck to clear blue skies, I knew the day was going to be warm, extremely warm.

That day I chose to drive over Highway 9 through the San Lorenzo Valley. I rarely drove this route but I had many memories of the area including the town of Boulder Creek, where I worked at a coffee shop just after college. This highway would be a fire line in upcoming weeks. Over 900 structures would be destroyed to the west of Highway 9.

Monday August 17, was the first day of school and it proved to be one of the oddest first days in my teaching career because I was not greeting my students at the classroom doorway but online in my digital “classroom”. Well that was the plan until I got to school and found out that the power was out and PG&E later looked at a power pole on campus that had been struck by lighting (part of the same storm system that started the fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains) and destroyed a transformer. Power would not be restored until two days.

As the news came that a series of forest fires (a complex) was growing into one big wildfire, I kept an eye on Cal Fire’s updates on the contagion. At the same time trying to be present for my students who were no doubt anxious and nervous with the first week’s jitters, especially so because we where all in isolation and we where only seeing a facsimile of ourselves on a screen.

I was also planning for a digital Back to School Night on Thursday and I knew there would be many questions about Distance Learning and I surly did not have all the answers. I ended the presentation by sharing the poem I had written last April about how we were all like pioneers on the Oregon Trail. There would be many hardships but with perseverance and hard work, we would get there.

Back to School Night went better than I had expected and it was very odd not to see my parents and greet then in person. Half and hour later, at 7 PM I received work that a mandatory evacuation order was in place for Paradise Park and my family cabin was in danger of being consumed by the CZU Lighting Complex fire!

At the time of writing the fire that was named the CZU Lighting Complex had burned for 19 days and have consumed over 86,000 acres across San Mateo and Santa Cruz Counties. As of the morning of September 5, the fire is 61% contained.

Cal Fire were able to create fire lines to protect the UC Santa Cruz campus, Santa Cruz, Scott’s Valley, and Paradise Park. The evacuation order was lifted after seven days and residents were able to return to their homes. I headed back to my cabin, a week later, almost 20 days since I had left.

The first thing I noticed was the smoky air and when I looked down the ground was covered in fine white ash, like a light dusting of snow that hadn’t melted away yet. Then I headed to my deck and I heard the rumble of a Cal Fire Huey helicopter with an empty water bucket trading behind.

I looked down and that’s when I noticed the leaves. They were bay laurel leave but they were drained of color and were a charred sepia. How far from the fire storm had these leaves travelled to land on my deck? This evidence of fire was somehow more “real” than the smoky air or the Cal Fire helicopters passing back and forth.

A burnt bay laurel leaf on my front steps.

The suet feeding on the deck was empty and the trees around the cabin were eerily empty of birds. I wondered some animals, like the humans of the community, had fled to less smokey quarters.

I replenished the water in the bird bath and I added some suet to the feeder. Slowly, life was returning. The first bird to visit the feeder was a chestnut-backed chickadee. Life was beginning to return to “normal”.

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Albatross

At length did cross an Albatross, 
Thorough the fog it came; 
As if it had been a Christian soul, 
We hailed it in God’s name.
 

~The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“Into each life some rain must fall, but too much is falling in mine.”

~Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots

Albatross.

Most people know the word. Some know that it is a bird. Fewer know that is is a bird of the sea. And even fewer have ever seen one in the wild.

I have seen albatross. But only two species, of the almost 21 species that ride just above the seas. They are a bird to behold. Long and thin, graceful wings that rarely flap as they soar on the ocean’s winds. A turkey vulture of the seas.

The most common albatross in the northeastern Pacific Ocean is the black-footed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes). It is uncommon to see Laysan albatross on an all day pelagic boat trip.

I had booked a pelagic trip out of Santa Cruz Harbor that was scheduled for August 30th. This trip was sponsored by the Santa Cruz Bird Club (founded in 1956) and was open to members only. The trip was limited to 18 birders because of the continuing pandemic. It sold out in a very short time.

This trip is a reconstituted version of a very popular “Albatross Trip” which was an annual pelagic trip first taken by the club in the 1950’s. As many as 60 club members would depart the Municipal Wharf in June on one of the Stagnero’s fishing boats. They headed out 12 miles to the rock cod fishing grounds and the bird on everyone’s wish list was black-footed albatross.

The albatross is the figurehead of the Santa Cruz Bird Club. Since the club’s inception in 1956, the newsletter is named “Albatross”. And the only way to see an albatross in Santa Cruz County is to get on a boat and head offshore. Most pelagic birding trips leave from Monterey and not Santa Cruz. So this Santa Cruz pelagic trip was a rare treat.

Albatross is a species I like to see at least once a year and I have never recorded a black-footed in Santa Cruz County waters and this pelagic trip was my chance! Along the way to the fishing grounds we also had a chance to pick up shearwaters, storm-petrels, jaegers, skua, murrelets, Sabine’s gull, and Arctic tern.

An adult black-footed albatross seen on an August 17, 2018 pelagic trip off the coast of San Mateo.

And then came a fierce, dry electric storm on the morning of Sunday, August 16. I was at my cabin the Santa Cruz Mountains and I first heard the deep rumble of thunder at 3 AM. This was a rare treat in the Coastal Region of California: thunder and lighting. I walked out on my deck and reveled in the sights and sounds of the power of nature.

This treat came with a trick. Lighting struck the extremely dry earth many times and ignited a forest fire, that was named the CZU Lighting Complex. At the time of writing the fire has consumed 78,769 acres and had been burning for eight days. 330 structures had been destroyed, including the Big Basin State Park Visitor’s center and taken one human life. (There is no tally for the lives of trees, plants, and animals killed in the fire.)

So with distance learning starting during a global pandemic, and a fire slowly creeping towards the cabin that has been in my family for almost 80 years I was especially looking forward to the opportunity to escape to the sea and look at the marine life; the whales, dolphins, and pelagic birds (including the black-footed albatross).

But it was not meant to be as the trip was postponed because of the wildfire and the displacement caused by mandatory evacuations in Santa Cruz County.

But this gives me hope. The fire is now 17% contained and I look forward to heading out to sea with the Santa Cruz Bird Club to see our first albatross appear through the rolling waves!