‘Most Beautiful Place on Earth’: The Citizens Who Stayed Behind to Save Their Santa Cruz Mountain Paradise

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Glen Hanson and Mark Kuchler take in the surroundings on a neighbor’s property that they were able to protect from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, pictured on Aug. 26, 2020.  (Hannah Hagemann/KQED)

When the CZU Lightning Complex fires ripped through the Santa Cruz mountains, triggering widespread mandatory evacuations, a patchwork army of civilians created their own impromptu firefighting team in Bonny Doon, defying county orders.

“There was no Cal Fire up here for two and a half days,” said Mark Kuchler, a longtime resident.

Kuchler and his husband Glen Hanson say they felt they didn’t have a choice but to stay and fight as the fire quickly approached their home early last week.

The couple’s Bonny Doon home has been in Kuchler’s family since 1975. The mountain hamlet community sits northwest of Santa Cruz and is traditionally home to hippies and farmers alike.

Kuchler used to be the neighborhood groundskeeper, taking care of thousands of acres of land. That deep understanding and knowledge of how to protect properties from fire damage, Kuchler said, helped him attack the blaze.

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Now the couple is patrolling, surveying damage, wetting down smoldering embers and putting out spot fires here and there. They’re also stripping brush and clearing roofs, trying to create natural fire barriers for their neighbors.

Hanson and Kuchler use a fire hose to put out a hot spot on Aug. 26, 2020. (Hannah Hagemann/KQED)

This week, after the fires receded from their neighborhood, Kuchler and Hanson drove past some of the homes that survived, amid charred manzanitas and madrones. A blanket of gray-white ash covers the ground where fire-resistant redwoods still stand tall.

“If we weren’t here, these houses that are here, none of them would be here,” Kuchler said.

Hanson and Kuchler successfully defended their neighbor’s cabin, pictured. (Hannah Hagemann/KQED)

During those first days of the firefight, the couple used their tractor to clear brush and cut fire lines. They also commandeered their neighbor’s fully outfitted fire truck to quench the flames.

The couple said they saved 10 homes in their neighborhood.

But the effort wasn’t without major risk. Hanson recounted a particularly perilous moment on a nearby hillside when they sprang into action to protect a group of vulnerable properties.

“This was all a wall of fire. The smoke was so thick, it was like acid," he said, gesturing to the area. "I could just feel my skin singeing, and my eyelashes burning, that’s when I said we can’t be here. I thought that we would die in here.”

That’s exactly the kind of scenario that Cal Fire is most worried about.

“The situation that they put themselves in, it’s a very dangerous position,” Edwin Zuniga, a Cal Fire spokesperson said. “We prioritize life over property. We don’t want anyone being trapped in a fire situation like that. We want them to evacuate.”

“We understand the frustration people had during that time,” Zuniga added, “and we were just completely stripped across the state. We’re sorry we couldn’t be there all at once.”

But Dave Gillotte, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department who’s been in Bonny Doon working the blaze with his crew, said they’ve been able to collaborate with citizen firefighters.

“Some of the brigades that were here from the neighborhood had already put in lines,” he said. “They had tanks and pumps and they were working to do what they could. And they were, of course, overwhelmed in certain areas. So when we came in, we already had something to work with and we improved what they did, and we didn't have any issues.”

Despite the danger, Kuchler and Hanson say they were protecting more than just homes.

“I got a hold of the school teacher to say that ‘we saved your house,’ " Kuchler recounted. “And she was just so joyful and happy. She was crying. And it was just like, ‘Wow, you know, we did that.’ ”

Without her home, Kuchler asks, “Would she have been able to stay a teacher in this area?”

All that's left of one property is a walkway and remnants of a garden. (Hannah Hagemann/ KQED)

That’s something the couple, who met at San Francisco Pride over 20 years ago, is worried about: that the fabric of their tight-knit community will be changed by this fire.

Cal Fire’s preliminary damage map shows that more than 100 homes in Bonny Doon were likely destroyed in the fire.

Just down the road from the teacher’s house, the fire tore through two properties off of Shake Mill Road. All that’s left on one parcel is a lone chimney.

All that’s left on one parcel is a chimney, which rises into the sky, meeting towering redwoods and Douglas fir. Pictured on Aug. 26, 2020. (Hannah Hagemann/ KQED)

“This was a cute little cabin,” Hanson said, pointing to the remains, “No one’s really doing that anymore. There’s not little old woodworkers up here building their place in the '70s, and having weird hippie drum circles.”

The couple says over the years they've seen the neighborhood shift; increasingly it's those who work in tech and commute over the hill buying properties.

In Santa Cruz County, the average home price was $501,000 in 2012, as compared to $947,000 today, according to the real estate site Redfin.

As housing prices skyrocket, the couple says they’re concerned that the fire will displace renters and long-time locals who live on family property. Those people, they say, likely won’t be able to afford to rebuild.

“If you get out of Santa Cruz County, you really can't get back in — unless you're really rich,” Hanson said. “So, there's a lot of people living out here that when they lose that [their home], it's done for them.”

Kuchler surveys part of a property that didn't make it on Aug. 26, 2020. (Hannah Hagemann/ KQED)

Kuchler and Hanson say that in battling the fire, they’re also fighting to keep the soul of Bonny Doon alive.

“Half of our community is going to be gone. We do have a community here and we have a community spirit, and we could possibly lose that,” Kuchler said, “There’s not too many places like that left in California that have that community spirit close to the ocean.”

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Fighting off tears, Hanson considered how many community members would be displaced.

“It’s the most beautiful place on earth. Every time I leave I say, ‘I just want to go home, I don’t need to be anywhere else,’ ” he said. “Everyone else here feels that way."

For now, roads into and out of the couple’s Bonny Doon neighborhood are blocked off. Once residents leave, they are unable to come back in until evacuation orders are lifted.

Kuchler only has a few days of his medication left. The couple is trying to figure out how to get a refill. Besides that, they say they’re doing OK on supplies for the time being and plan to stay up on the mountain to help gradually rebuild their community.

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“That's the kind of neighbors we are, we really do care about each other,” Kuchler said. “Some of us may not agree with this, that and the other thing. But at the end of the day, we love our neighbors. We love all of them. You know, even the ones we don't love, we still kind of love them.”