It was just two years ago that the CZU Lightning Complex fires erupted, leaving 86,500 acres charred between the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Mateo County. More than 1,490 structures were lost, and 911 homes in Santa Cruz County burned. In Big Basin, 97% of the 18,000-acre forest burned, and thousands were forced to flee their homes with whatever they could grab. Some folks had go-bags packed and ready; others were caught totally by surprise and escaped with just the clothing they had on their backs.
The trauma of the event touched every resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Scotts Valley as homes were evacuated, businesses were closed and the start of school was delayed—and all of it during a pandemic that raged across the country.
Jo Romaniello is a marriage and family therapist who lived near Big Basin in the Forest Springs neighborhood, also known as The Acorns. Romaniello says a third of homes in his neighborhood were torched and their water system was badly damaged.
“We didn’t return home for almost six months due to the state refusing to lift the no-use order for our water,” Romaniello said.
After the danger subsided, Romaniello created a Facebook group entitled “Boulder Creek and the CZU Fire Book Project.”
In it, Romaniello welcomed locals who had been impacted by the fire to share their stories, and the fledgling idea grew into a published book that just dropped at the end of August.
“The People Not the Fire” is the result of a collaborative effort between Romaniello, co-editors Taylor Kimble and Lisa Manak-Brown, and story and photo submissions from locals around the San Lorenzo Valley. Every story in the book is gripping in its own way, and each photo cements the images of that event in the reader’s memory.
“We wanted to avoid any controversy, and create a book for hope and healing,” said Romaniello. “I decided that we needed something for healing, so I invited people to contribute their stories.
Romaniello said that the participation on the page “mushroomed” a few weeks into the process.
“I found that a lot of folks wanted to participate. Taylor contacted me and wanted to support the project, so she and I worked together to communicate with residents,” Romaniello said. “Some wanted to be interviewed and have their stories written down by others; some wanted to write their stories themselves, and we welcomed them all. About a year into it, Lisa joined in, so for the last year, the three of us worked on the project.”
Kimble is a writer and freelance editor and knew she wanted to contribute to the project.
“I was training to be an editor at the time, and felt that I could help support Jo’s idea,” said Kimble. “As we were collecting the stories, there was such a range of feelings—some of them were funny, some were heartbreaking and some were inspirational.”
Kimble’s home on China Grade was spared, but many of her neighbors lost theirs. Kimble reached out to Manak-Brown to join the team.
“I’m a middle school teacher by trade, and I’ve always been eager to go on a new adventure with my own writing,” said Manak-Brown. “I saw the Facebook group page, and wondered how I could support the project. I ran into Taylor, and she said she was part of the book creation and invited me to join in.
“It was wonderful to be able to participate in the project, not just because I wrote my own story, but since all the proceeds are going to our local volunteer fire departments, it’s really benefitting others. Plus, it’s helping others heal by writing their stories and sharing them. I’m now looking for a new life in writing.”
Of all the stories in the book, Manak-Brown said the most compelling and impactful one was from Gemma Locatelli.
“I couldn’t imagine what she had gone through. Losing her property and people not understanding the danger she was in when she was begging for help; hearing a man scream for his life while she kept trying to remove horses from her property that were exhausted and dehydrated,” said Manak-Brown through tears. “Having to abandon her vehicles and being met with wall of flames as she tried to escape—the horror she endured was unimaginable,”
While local residents shared their stories, a local business went one step further. HeartMath LLC, a Boulder Creek-based company that focuses on personal wellness through heart intelligence, not only provided training and respite for firefighters during the CZU blaze, they also paid for each participant in the book to receive their own copy.
“Their generosity was overwhelming, and we’re so grateful for their support,” said Romaniello.
Ultimately, said Kimble, the book is one of hope.
“Out of all of the turmoil people have endured, each story had something hopeful to share, whether it’s the regrowth of plants or preparing for next time or bonding with complete strangers. Community is a huge part of this book,” said Kimble. “There are so many situations that can destroy a community, but it was a relief to see how the opposite happened—the fire brought people together in a unique and valuable way.”
“The People Not the Fire” is available for purchase on Amazon, with all proceeds going to local volunteer fire departments in the Santa Cruz Mountains.