At 2:00 last Sunday morning, while sleeping in the heart of a grove of two-hundred-foot redwoods, what seemed like a series of atomic bombs went off over my head, one neon flash after another in quick succession, cutting the forest around me into sharp silhouette. The thunder and lightning were synchronous; the storm was directly overhead. Rain splatted through the screened roof of the nylon tent.
I felt awe for a minute, then terror. All my life I’ve known better than to stand near trees or water in a lightning storm, yet here I was, under the world’s tallest trees, next to a creek in Portola Redwoods State Park—my first time there. There was only one way out, up a tiny twisty road through thousands more redwood trees. One of my friends thought we should leave right away, but it was agreed that we ought to stay low. Driving up and out could attract a bolt, or take us right into a fire.
One friend clambered out and attached the rain fly, which filtered the frequent flashes to a pulsing glow. I lay by the door and unzipped it to watch the raw lightning. Warm rain rolled over my face. I stared, mesmerized, at the indigo skyflower formed by the tops of the trees, watching its petals turn purple, mustard, or pink—a dynamic aurora borealis, set to crashes and booms that rumbled through my bones, as awesome and exhausting as if it were a laser-lit, four-hour Neil Peart solo.
After a while my friends fell back to sleep, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the nuclear sky, nor my mind off the fear that a fire would start nearby.
The show ended at seven, and the sun made jewels of the raindrops on billions of needles. Banana slugs slimed across the wet forest floor. I could hear people taking down tents, and the smell of pancakes rose through the fresh-washed air.
The camp host drove past, waving cheerily at his discomfited guests. “Quite a show, wasn’t it!” he called out with a grin, alleviating my fears. I thought maybe the San Mateo range saw such virulent action often—that the night had not been so frightening to him because this topography, like Yosemite's high points, might attract regular thunderstorms. So I focused forward on exploring the rest of the range with my friends, and getting respite from another hundred-degree, humid day.
But as we ascended the long winding road out of camp, we saw towers of smoke. One grey plume was wavering below us, just outside of the park. A brown one wiggled up from behind a northern ridge. And at the western skyline, straight pillars of crimson stood tornado-tall.
Yet there were no planes in the air, no wailing siren sounds. At the Pescadero County Park entrance, a ranger blocked the way in, but did not look alarmed. At Butano State Park, the ranger at the booth looked a little more anxious, but just said the park was closed because of a fire. At every state or county park, we were turned away because of fires beyond our view.
So instead we went up winding roads and discovered cold creeks no less stunning than in the Sierras. We noted future picnic spots for cooler, calmer days. We walked through the Heritage Grove of old-growth redwoods, where five trees had fused together in a single colossus. We wandered past banks of leatherleaf and sword ferns, past logs lush with bright fluffy moss. We looked up the origins of the historic Middleton tract, whose original and subsequent owners had kept its huge, ancient trees safe from loggers. We daydreamed of renting its quaint summer cabins, once owned by the Stanford elite in the 1930s.
By the time we left the San Mateo range at six o'clock, we were all in wonder at its primeval beauty, and wondered why none of us had ever been there before. We could hardly wait to go back, and we had no reason to believe we would not. The plumes in the distance did not seem to have grown much larger, and we were optimistic the fires would soon be out, thanks to the night’s rain and the efforts of the day's firefighters.
But now we know the firefighters' efforts were fast overwhelmed. That there were five times as many fires as visible plumes, and that many more trees were holding fire in their hearts, smoldering,
On the third day, back at my Capitola home, a blood-red sun rose up through a violet smog, and the ashes of my redwood friends made gray snow on my deck. The lightning had taken the heart of the forest by storm.
Since then my brother, friends, colleagues, and customers have all had to leave their mountain homes in a rush, but the community, as always, has pulled together with strength, grace, courage, and generosity. Inner beauty is easily seen in the good heart of Santa Cruz. As for the beauty in the heart of the mountains, just what remains to be seen still remains to be seen.
If you're a local who'd like to donate goods, please drop them off at the warehouse at 1082 Emeline--not the evacuation centers. If you're not a local and you'd like to help, here's the link to donate. THANK YOU.
8/24/2020 11:11:13 am
Jenny, I am so glad your group was able to leave your campground safely. These fires are horrific and your description of your experience amplifies how easy it could be to not evacuate. A few miles from our home a log was struck by lightning during last Sunday's storm. It festered for 4 days before really igniting. Luckily the firefighters were able to extinguish it. It was in a highly populated area.
8/24/2020 04:52:05 pm
Thank you, Leslie. Horrific is the right word. I had no idea that trees could smolder so long before igniting, so I'd had my hopes up--so glad things didn't get worse near you!
8/24/2020 11:13:59 am
Beautifully written, my amazing nature loving friend. What an adventure!
8/24/2020 04:55:49 pm
Thank you for this, my own amazing nature loving friend! It was an adventure, to be sure. I'm glad you weren't there but I sure appreciate you being HERE. XO
8/24/2020 11:40:41 am
What a beautiful and terrifying and exquisitely written first-hand account, Jenny. As in so many other cases, I am grateful for your ability to put into words an important moment in time. This is a description everyone should read. More than anything, I’m glad you got out safely. I love you and am so proud of your way with words!!!
8/24/2020 05:05:00 pm
Aw Beck, thanks for always making me feel like every little thing I do is worth doing, and for all your sweet words. I love you too! And am glad you don't have to teach without me!! :) XOXO
8/24/2020 02:45:45 pm
Wow!! I’m so jealous that you were sleeping outside during the storm!!! Love your descriptions! Sending a hug!!
8/24/2020 05:06:47 pm
I knew YOU would wish you were there! Seriously, it was so scary!!! But the next day was truly exquisite... as far as I knew at the time. :( Thank you Sheri--hugs back. XO
8/24/2020 11:44:36 pm
Oh wow, Jenny! I did not realize you were there! I'm so thankful you are safe. Thank you for writing such a powerful first-hand account to bring us all into that amazing (and terrifying) moment.
8/25/2020 08:43:47 pm
I was ALL there! Thank you for taking the time to read and suffer through my anxiety with me! Nothing like the trauma the mountain dwellers have been through, though. :(
8/24/2020 11:56:19 pm
Wow I bet you never forget this period, so glad you had some time of beauty in the forest before it was destroyed. Glad you are safe and made it out. Grateful for your writin, in your description you really do make it feel like you're right there as you read through it. How scary it would have been. Thanks for sharing.
8/25/2020 08:47:48 pm
Thanks for reading and commenting, Cathy--it was scary, for sure, but not as scary as it was for the people living there in the days afterward. I'm so sorry for the loss of these beautiful places, but I know the mountain communities and Nature will renew them.
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