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June 5, 2023

New Film Honors CZU Survivors Two Years Post Blaze

In honor of the second anniversary of the CZU Lightning Complex, Mountain Community Theater (MCT) Director Peter Gelblum did something extraordinary to commemorate the event: he wrote a film about it. 

Of the movie, entitled, “The CZU Fire In Their Own Words: Fighting Fires, Losing Homes and Rebuilding Community,” Gelblum said, “Our idea was to create a living document about the fire and the effect it had on the Valley, as a gift to the community.”

Gelblum’s gift is set to be released on Saturday, July 9 at 7pm at the Boulder Creek Recreation Center, with all proceeds to be divided between Boulder Creek Fire Department and the Community Foundation’s Fire Recovery Fund. 

The film is done documentary-style, with members of MCT featured in the roles of fire survivors, resulting in a compendium of memories and local art, wrapped in music and presented to the community it reflects. 

The script is based on interviews Gelblum conducted with various community members: Matt and Mindy Lariz, Marj and Steve Young, the Ring Family, Big Basin Redwood Park Interpreter Susan Blake, Clinical Social Worker Joan Donato, The Red Pearl’s Jenny Wu, Boulder Creek Native Brian Garrahan and Boulder Creek Fire Protection District Chief Mark Bingham. 

Gelblum said the impetus for making this film was an emotional response to the CZU Fire’s wrath. 

“The unprecedented destruction of both the forest and homes, the vast amount of emotional, material, and ecological suffering, and the enormous outpouring of love and support from neighbors and community,” he said. ”As a performing arts organization, we were in a unique position to create a document of this extraordinary event.” 

When it came time to select the stories to share, Gelblum had many to choose from. 

“I’d read about Brian Garrahan’s heroic “unofficial” efforts to fight the fire, show people what was happening with their houses (including ours), and feed animals (including our cat),” he said. “I and other people at MCT knew people who had lost their homes, and who had interesting stories about their fire experiences.”

MCT’s cast and crew found different messages and motivations in their roles. Actor Grace Peng, who plays Wu, said she felt honored to be a part of the project. 

“I was touched that MCT was creating an homage to the victims of this tightly knit community to memorialize the devastating effects of the CZU fire and how the people of Boulder Creek came together to help one another,” said Peng.

Wu, whose house was lost in the fire, returned to her restaurant as soon as she could after evacuation orders were lifted, and went to work feeding survivors at no charge. 

“I met Jenny a few times, and she is so lovely, generous and kind,” said Peng, who also highlighted a larger message at play. “In California, fire is a part of our new reality. While the fire destroyed so many homes and personal items, the power and generosity of community, of the human connection and love, is unwavering and endures. This film would be relevant to all but may be particularly interesting to those who live in vulnerable regions that are prone to fire.”

Actor Sarah Marsh, who plays Mindy Lariz, said the idea of participating in the film was a little daunting when she was first asked. 

“I wanted Matt and Mandy Lariz (the couple Nat Robinson and I portrayed) to feel heard, represented, and loved. This film shows the resiliency of the human spirit. We might hear that a lot, but these precious humans actually lived it,” Marsh said. “During a deadly global pandemic, job and financial insecurity, a racial injustice reckoning, and nastiness of an upcoming election, they lost their homes, possessions, and security in that disastrous fire. To hear their stories and see how they survived in the midst of so much heartache … how can one not be moved and amazed at their courage and tenacity?” 

Marsh also found solace in the retelling of the survivors’ stories. 

“There is power in sharing our stories. I’m grateful to Peter Gelblum for leading, directing, and editing this project, and I’m extremely thankful to those who shared. May your stories bring solidarity and hope to others who go through scary and difficult times,” she said.

Cabrillo Stage and MCT are the home away from home for actor, singer and dancer Mindy Pedlar. In addition to promoting Cabrillo Stage’s various plays and musicals, she’s also a staple at MCT and was given the role of Marj Young (wife of Steve Young, played by David Leach). 

“I thought it was a wonderful idea for our community and I was honored to be asked to be a part of it,” Pedlar said.

Pedlar said that she and Leach had the opportunity to meet the Young family and visit their property. 

“I wasn’t expecting to cry, but the sense of loss was overwhelming and tears flowed. The trees were trying to reassure me, telling me ‘It’s OK, we’ll grow again,’” Pedlar said. “My heart ached for this couple that had lost so much, but I admired their desire to carry on, perhaps to rebuild and their gratitude that their family was safe.” 

Pedlar said the message of the film was one of resilience. 

“To me, it’s an example of ordinary people going through a devastating experience, dealing with great loss yet somehow rising above the situation and coming together to help each other,” Pedlar said. “In these terrible pandemic and political times, it’s heartwarming to see the generosity of our community at large. For all of us, it’s important to be heard, particularly when trauma has been experienced. This film gives voice to the survivors.”

Leach, who has been featured prominently in many of Gelblum’s MCT performances, said he believes “the primary message is tragedy is really hard on us, on a personal level, in so many ways and it’s always just around the corner.” 

“But the human spirit, like the earth, is incredibly resilient and able to recover from almost anything you can imagine,” he said. “Or, if you want a simpler one, even in tragedy, it’s the people you love who remain the most important things in our lives. Tragedy doesn’t just happen to the ‘other guy.’ It has the potential to strike any of us, at any time, without warning. So stay aware, keep yourself prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice. And don’t covet stuff, treat others with dignity and love and you will be better off.”

Helene Simkin Jara, who gave voice to Park Ranger Blake in the film, said she “was feeling honored to be representing someone who had experienced such a great loss.” 

“A main message in the film to me is the strong human ability to survive and continue even after such an enormous loss. Also, the willingness of neighbors and friends to help each other in times of great need,” Simkin Jara said. “We never know when a tragedy will happen, and it can happen in the blink of an eye, so the appreciation of what we have in the present counts for a lot and is a good thing to be mindful of.”

Gelblum said he is looking forward to sharing the film with the community it represents. 

“Mountain Community Theater funded the film as a gift to the community,” he said.

The initial screening of the film will be on Saturday, July 9 at the Boulder Creek Rec Center at 7pm. The film will also be shown at one or two other places in the Valley, Bonny Doon and possibly downtown Santa Cruz; Gelblum is hoping to screen it at the Second Annual CZU Remembrance event at Brookdale Lodge on Aug. 18, the second anniversary of the fire. It will eventually be posted on the MCT website and YouTube channel.

Christina Wise
Christina Wise covers politics, education, art & culture, and housing issues. She has a degree in Communication from San Diego State University, and has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley since 1996. She's a community advocate and a mother of two.


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