This past August and September, as you are no doubt aware, wildfires burned across California and many other parts of the western United States, killing 24 people, destroying over 4,000 homes, businesses and other structures and burning over three million acres. —The size of Connecticut. On August 20, one of these fires threatened Bonny Doon, a small mountain town south of Santa Cruz that is home to about 3,000 people. As the flames got closer, 40 years old Natalia Jessen Flechsig, along with her father, mother, husband and two friends, chose not to evacuate and instead stayed to fight the fires themselves. Here in his own words Natalia tells how they not only saved their own homes, but also many others in the rural community.
My farm, Deerhaven Herb & Flower Farm, has been part of my family for almost 40 years. We have 8,000 lavender plants that we use to make soap, essential oil and candles. At harvest time in October, people come to pick the lavender themselves, and we also sell flower water and ointments.
Both my parents grew up in Bonny Doon and therefore know the mountains, the forest and the environment very well. I grew up here too and came back with my husband and two children, aged 6 and 8, to live here as an adult. My grandparents live here too, so we have four generations on the mountain.
In addition to the lavender plants, our land has three houses, two workshops, two barns, a pool house and a henhouse. In 2008, my father was left alone to defend our property against the Martin fire. [which burned 500 acres and destroyed 11 homes]. We lost our house, a workshop, the pool house and the cooperative, but he managed to save the other two houses, the barns and the other workshop. Through this experience, my father really understood how fire works. He noticed that it was blowing quickly, leaving almost everything intact, but then saw embers fall from the sky in its wake, which created new point fires that ultimately cost several buildings.
As the fire season approaches this year, we’ve come up with a plan. Now that my husband and I have children – ages 6 and 8 – we had to choose who would stay, who would go and what we would do. We decided that I would leave the farm with our kids, pets, and important items while the rest of my family stayed. We had spent much of the year clearing brush, making firebreaks, and clearing trees from the house. We figured that as a last resort my family members could jump into our pool to protect themselves from the fire.
But even though we had the plan, it didn’t work out as we had hoped. The fire happened in Bonny Doon on a Tuesday night, and when the evacuation orders came, I was already home in Santa Cruz, 15 miles away, as it was less smoke than Bonny Doon. . My kids were there with me, but my cat wasn’t there, so I decided to go up the mountain. I called my parents around midnight and woke them up, telling them that I was coming to help them and to pack their bags. On the way up the mountain, I passed several cars leaving. It was windy and the air was full of ash – I didn’t know what I was riding in. But I wasn’t thinking of fear or the unknown; I was focused on getting my cat to his crate and helping my parents with whatever they needed at the last minute. By the time I got to the farm we could see a little orange glow in the distance and estimated the fire was 5-10 miles away.
The configuration was very strategic. We put a ladder on each roof so we could climb up quickly and put out occasional fires if embers land on them. We put in place an elaborate system of pipes, which were connected to three 3,000 gallon water tanks; we even had a generator to run the water pumps once we lost power. The plan was for my dad to keep the water tanks from melting, while my mom kept the soil moist around the three houses.
After I finished the installation, around 6 a.m., I returned to Santa Cruz where my children were staying with a friend. I knew the fire was going to come later that day and it was hard to say goodbye and leave my mom there with her little garden hose. My dad is 63, but he’s so fit – he was a lumberjack, a fisherman – so I knew if anyone was up to the challenge, it was him. And my mom had the car ready, just in case.
The next afternoon we realized it was a bigger fire than expected. Cal-Fire didn’t show up – they had stopped cleaning fire roads years ago, so there was no way to get the trucks up, and the smoke was so bad they couldn’t. fly in air support. My family was alone.
We knew we would need more diesel for the generators as well as ice and water, so a friend and I ran supply runs. We were in communication with my parents, so we knew firsthand how safe it was to follow a specific route. We made two trips on Thursday August 20 and one trip on Friday August 21, leaving just as the fire reached our farm.
On the second day of the fire, people started to gather at our farm. Even though we’re so close to Santa Cruz and Silicon Valley, we don’t have cell service in Bonny Doon. But in our driveway people may have a service bar or two, so our property has become a gathering place. On Wednesday evening, my parents and I decided to start collecting supplies and feeding the locals who remained on the mountain. Family and friends donated to help so that we have immediate funds to use. I put the word out on our local Facebook page for those still in Bonny Doon to get food, water, 1-2 bars of cell service and any other help on our farm. Soon my mom also started to prepare three meals a day for 30 people every day. People would come to the farm to check on each other, and also for supplies like ice, diesel, gasoline, and pet food.
Once our property was secured, my mom and her friends started moving around with homemade tankers – vans with water tanks in the back and a small generator to power the hose – to put out localized fires. In the region. They saved many houses on the mountain.
At times, the fire had flames 40 feet in height; at one point he came within 10 feet of my parents’ house but didn’t come close because my mom kept the area around the house moist. The flames also hit a corner of our lavender fields, but didn’t get far as we had cut down all the trees and brush around the field so there was no fuel and went out. Fire burned all around us but did not reach us. Our farm is now surrounded by brown trees; half of our meadow behind the farm is black.
But it’s hard to celebrate the fact that many of our friends have lost their homes. It’s a tight-knit community, not just during the fires. We have a lively Facebook page, a large local garage sale, a plant exchange. You know your neighbors and when someone needs help, you help them. We have a lot of dinners and parties on the mountain – you don’t see that much in the neighborhoods anymore – so people don’t think twice about trying to save each other. In total, firefighters estimate that 200 to 300 homes have been lost in our small town alone, and around 1,000 structures.
I know my family took a risk by staying behind, and I know it might sound crazy, but it never felt like it was in danger. I even asked my mom if she wanted to go with me a few times and she said, “I know I’m safe here, I can always jump in the pool if it gets really crazy, which I know no. take care of daddy and feed all these people here. “It was hot and smoky, the fire surrounded the farm, but we still felt like we were in control.
I’m proud of the work we’ve done to fight the fires and save our homes, but it’s also frustrating that we haven’t had any help. Cal Fire’s focus was on the northern edge of the blaze as it spread to neighboring Santa Cruz and more populated areas. Their resources were so scattered that I think they made the decision to sacrifice our community so that they could fight the fire front. People were unhappy with this and felt it was unfair to spend resources on one area at the expense of another. If the locals hadn’t stayed, I guarantee the rest of the mountain would have burned down.
Looking forward, I know that fire prevention management will be an important topic in our community. Since there is no cell phone service and people now recognize how important it is in an emergency, there will also be a big push for cell phone towers. We are now raising funds to rebuild what has been lost, looking at how we can take care of the community and the children here. Our community acted quickly when there were no other emergency services to help us, and I’m so proud of the way people have stepped up. Whether it’s buying supplies, donating or staying to fight, everyone helped each other out and I’m in awe of what we accomplished in just five days.
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