Ackemann: In the aftermath of CZU Lightning Complex fires
The Ackemann family home in the San Lorenzo Valley stands amid the haze in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo courtesy of Jayme Ackemann.

The CZU Lightning Complex fires burned to within 1,000 feet of my road. While my home and those of my neighbors on our road were saved, friends, local teachers, firefighters working on the front lines and so many more did lose their homes.

Most months I plan to use this space to discuss Bay Area transportation policies and initiatives. Forgive me if I press pause on the regularly scheduled programming to tell you about the home I love. I need to tell you what it feels like to leave your heart inside the fire.

We are home now after 13 days of evacuation. Two weeks, it’s about how much vacation time we earn each year. If two weeks away might seem like a vacation, I promise it feels a little different when you spend each night watching your neighbor’s security cameras to see if your home is still standing.

For 13 days we watched in horror as our community burned. Our bodies were safe but we had left our hearts back in the fire.

I moved to the San Lorenzo Valley 15 years ago. My husband has been there more than 20. We raised our two daughters there — one now a senior in college and watching with despair and impotence from another state, the other a junior in high school whose school year was first delayed by COVID-19 and now by fire.

I don’t think there’s a single place like our valley in the Bay Area.

In our valley, we have a sign at the corner of Highway 9 and Graham Hill Road where community members post tributes, encouragement and art in support of one another. It’s not commercial. It’s just love.

For months that little billboard was a message of love for a young valley man who died in a traffic accident at that corner. Then it became a place where residents put up inspirational art to lift each other’s spirits when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In our valley, blue collar workers, tech industry engineers, artists, equestrians, police officers and firefighters and so many others live side by side. We haven’t segregated ourselves by income level. It’s still a place where the children of house painters and tech industry executives can play together on the same soccer team.

In our valley, we have all-volunteer fire departments made up mostly of the same men and women who grew up here, many who started volunteering as high school fire interns, loved it and stayed.

We have people like my brother-in-law, a retired firefighter who stayed on as a volunteer at our local department and his son, 23, who started as one of those fire interns. Together with the thousands of other men and women, many local, they are on the front lines fighting to save our homes.

Because that is what we do in our valley.

At the corner of Highway 9 and Glen Arbor Road just before Highlands Park, you’ll see a big sign memorializing Santa Cruz County Sheriff Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, who was killed in the line of duty a couple of months ago.

The pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests were already in full swing when the report of a suspicious vehicle carrying weapons came in. The deputy sheriff was ambushed and killed by an active duty Air Force member who was affiliated with a racist militia group.

It was a painful thing to go through as a valley because we were a people divided. Everyone was horrified by the sergeant’s murder but it came during a time of racial tension and calls of police brutality.

But divided is not our natural state. San Lorenzo Valley — #SLVSTRONG — is a community. We know how to come together.

As I made the return trip back Aug. 31, I tried to honor each of the landmarks that represent home to me.

I pulled to the stop at Graham Hill and Mt. Hermon and said a mental hello to Covered Bridge Park, home to many valley birthday parties.

I glanced to my right as I turned onto Highway 9 to be sure the “Together We Arise” poster was still there. It was.

I passed the “Tri-Campus” where our kids have gone from kindergarten to high school and where so many San Lorenzo Valley High School grads now teach.

Just past the school is the turn for the road on which my brother-in-law and his family live. I said a mental thank you for its safety because — like us — they got lucky.

Then I made the left-hand turn on my road. My house is nearly a mile up towards the top of the ridge. From my backyard, I can easily hike out to the Fall Creek State Park system, now burned practically to our backyards.

As I drove up my road, I passed the neighbors working in their yard. I honked my horn and they looked up and waved. That’s what coming home to my heart still beating in this forest means to me.

But there are many San Lorenzo Valley residents still displaced. More than 800 homes have burned as of this writing. If you can, please donate to any of the following organizations working to help the communities affected by fire recover. I’ve listed a few below but there are individual gofundme accounts and businesses that also need help.

For donations to evacuees and fire victims:

The Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County, www.cfscc.org/fire.

Red Cross of the Central Coast, www.redcross.org/donate.

Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks – Fire Relief Fund, www.thatsmypark.org.

Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

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