In the span of five months, thousands of Santa Cruz County residents have left their homes, fearing fires, floods, winds, and mudslides, unsure when they’d return.

Over 60,000 Santa Cruz County residents were evacuated during the CZU Lightning Complex fires last August. Then, two weeks ago, strong winds left residents without power and sparked over 20 fires across the county. A few days later on Jan. 25, heavy rains forced 5,000 residents in the Santa Cruz Mountains to evacuate under threat of mudslides along the dry soil of the CZU burn scar.

“Being asked to evacuate again, just a couple months after having to deal with fire risk or loss, really re-traumatizes the idea of having to leave,” said Boulder Creek resident Sandra Dreisbach. “Independent of what the risks are, you don’t want to leave, especially considering how much our homes have been a part of feeling safe during COVID.” 

UC Santa Cruz geology professor Gary Griggs said that the combination of a very dry early winter with the 86,000 acres of foliage burned in the CZU Complex created a perfect storm for deadly debris flow. Without foliage or moisture on the forest floor, the remaining dry soil cannot absorb large amounts of water in short periods of time. Under heavy rains, the mixture of dry soil, rocks, trees, and debris turns into mud and liquid in a matter of seconds, flowing down a hillside at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. 

“It’s like a couple of dump truck loads [of mud and debris] hitting your house with no warning,” Griggs said. “Your chances of surviving are not very high.”

Valencia School Road collapse. Photo courtesy of California Highway Patrol Santa Cruz.

While the Santa Cruz Mountains were spared of major debris flows, the storm hit harder further south. In Aptos, 80 percent of Valencia School Road and White Road were lost after sliding down the hillside in a debris flow event. Department of Public Works (DPW) Director Matt Machado says repairing the roads will take a significant amount of time. The Rio del Mar Flats faced heavy flooding and power loss. 

In Monterey County, nearly 24 homes were lost in a debris flow in Salinas and a 150-foot chunk of Highway 1 fell into the ocean in Big Sur.

Drone footage of Highway 1 collapse in Big Sur. Video courtesy of Monterey County Sheriff’s Department.

“All of this was pre-planned to the best of our abilities,” said Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson. “Hundreds of people put thousands of hours of work in to [identify] the danger zone. We have hazards we might face, and [evacuations] are the best we can do to keep people safe.”

McPherson was part of a countywide collaboration, which included the Board of Supervisors, the DPW, a team of geologists and hydrologists, CalFire, local fire departments, the Sheriff’s Department, and the California Highway Patrol.

These partners started planning for potential debris flow as soon as the CZU complex was contained in September.

Despite the dangers posed by debris flows, 270 households opted not to evacuate when ordered by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department.

“People have free will and they’re able to make those decisions, but the consequence could be that we are not able to rescue them,” said Machado. “If things go really bad, the roads could be out and it would be too dangerous to send in crews. And so you’re taking your life into your own hands.” 

As residents regroup and begin to move forward, questions remain about the nature of living in an increasingly risky environment. Griggs pointed to the Santa Cruz Climate Adaptation Plan, an initiative to incorporate long-term climate resiliency planning into county policies. Based on input from climate scientists, the plan prepares for more wildfires during drier summers and more flooding and debris flows during winters with extreme storms. 

Much like during the CZU fires, the community came together during last week’s evacuations to assist one another. Residents helped each other evacuate and find places to stay. They also opened up their homes and started fundraisers for evacuees.

Moving into a future with the uncertainty of climate change, it will be crucial for residents of the Santa Cruz Mountains to continue to be proactive and look to their community for support. Dreisbach said that after the evacuations, the community has doubled down and risen to the challenge that these climate disasters posed.

“The Santa Cruz Mountains community is really good about being networked,” said Dreisbach. “We do a lot to help each other out. That’s the beauty and also the challenge of living in this environment where nature has a stronger role to play in our lives.”

Children and families posted supportive signs around Santa Cruz Mountains neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of Sandra Dreisbach.