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March 3, 2021

CZU survivors camp out in Henry Cowell

After losing their homes in the destructive CZU August Lightning Complex fires, many survivors have camped out and found refuge in Henry Cowell State Park.

“We’ve had quite a big surge due to the CZU Fire Complex,” Visitor Service Aid, Zach Lemke, said. “At least one person I interacted with today was a CZU victim.” 

Lemke also lost his home in Boulder Creek, but has found housing in Zayante. He was humble describing the experience and “mostly grateful my mom and cat are safe.” Now he assists fellow CZU survivors almost everyday at the campground.

At least 30 survivors have utilized the campground since September as a resource for sheltering. This is the first year in several that Henry Cowell State Park has opened its winter campground. While the State Park did so out of financial need, it is also simultaneously helping those who have become homeless in the wake of fire.

Campers can spend up to seven days for $35 per night. An additional $10 is required for every car after the first. While this is helpful for CZU survivors, Lemke laments the week-long stay policy.  

“Quite a lot [of visitors] spend the whole seven days, vacate for the mandated 24 hours, and then come back again for another week,” he said. “Campers can also leave Henry Cowell after a week and go immediately to New Brighton and come back after a week there.”

Another option is to file for a “closure order, which waives the maximum stay period of seven days,” Lemke said. However, due to short administration staffing, these orders “usually take a while to get processed and handed out,” he said. 

Administrative staff are also at work to waive the 30-day maximum occupancy regulation, as several survivors near that limit, with another month left in the year.

Due to a broken online registration system, the campground has remained almost empty throughout the season. Campers generally use Reserve California to secure spots, but the reservation system shows that the park is closed. This creates more ease for the CZU survivors and walk-ins as well. 

“Things aren’t busy at all,” he said. “Throughout the week, we get about 3-10 campers per day, which is practically nonexistent.”

Before the system broke, Lemke says, “in October, we were extremely busy. We have never had an October where we have been almost full every single weekday. It was honestly disconcerting that so many people wanted to be out during the pandemic. Thankfully the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks have worked hard to keep staffers safe.”

The campground is only half open for the season, due to low numbers maintenance staff. However, even with half of the spots closed, 47 units are available for campers and only 27 sites were taken at peak of visitation since the reservation system failed.

Big Basin burning provided another motivation for the campground’s winter opening. Park staff decided to keep the grounds open for Big Basin State Park clientele that would be unable to return there this year.  Staffers have yet to see many of those campers though.

“We haven’t been getting Big Basin campers here,”  Lemke said. “Our clientele is different. Big Basin has more veteran campers, where we get a lot of first-time campers because we’re easily accessible from Santa Cruz, San Lorenzo, Scotts Valley and San Jose.”

Henry Cowell State Park also hosts staff from Big Basin since the CZU Complex burned most of the park. 

When the reservation system goes back online, Henry Cowell Campgrounds may fill again and provide the “financial relief that the State Department of Parks and Recreation has been looking for since Covid began,”  Lemke said.

Until then, the campground will continue to be a flexible option for CZU survivors.