Photo essay: TSL journalist on documenting the California wildfires

This extended caption was written by TSL photo editor Talia Bernstein SC ’21. It details her visits to Rancho Siempre Verde, California, and Bonny Doon, California, two areas that were devastated by the CZU Lightning Complex fires.

As I went to bed the night of Aug. 15, a massive thunderstorm passed overhead. The cracks of thunder and lightning were louder than anything I had heard before and persisted until the next morning. By then, hundreds of small fires had ignited throughout California.

A forest full of burned tree trunks, many devoid of leaves.
(Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

The ensuing CZU Lightning Complex fires in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties burned more than 86,000 acres. The fires destroyed nearly 1,000 structures, displaced over 75,000 residents and heavily damaged Big Basin, California’s oldest state park.

Grove of burned trees against barren background.
(Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

While most evacuation orders have been lifted and repopulation continues, the destruction from the fires remains painfully visible. On Sept. 12, I visited my friend’s family-run Christmas tree farm, Rancho Siempre Verde, which translates to always green ranch in Spanish. But the farm I visited barely resembled the cherished, vibrant land I spent countless weekends on as a child, playing in apple orchards, picking berries and making Christmas wreaths. 

The fire reached the farm on the afternoon of Aug. 19. Despite intense preparation by my friend’s family and valiant firefighting efforts that evening, they eventually had no choice but to watch from afar as their farm burned. As I walked through the property, almost a month later, the air was still thick with the smell of smoke and charred eucalyptus; the ground still smoldered in spots, and whole hillsides were wiped clean of vegetation. It was heartbreaking to see the loss of so many dwellings, workshops, trailers, tools, electrical and irrigation infrastructure, crops, precious trees and forested groves. The damage is extensive, but the family is hopeful they can rebuild and replant.

The burned out remains of a car containing the ashes of whatever was inside of it.
(Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

After leaving the farm, I drove through the Bonny Doon area of Santa Cruz County and encountered distressing levels of destruction. Countless homes have been reduced to nothing but ash, and the shells of burnt-out cars are incredibly sobering. Standing over the remains of these homes was disquieting, and I felt simultaneously numb and emotional. Car wheels and seats were vaporized, and it got so hot that melted pools of glass and metal surrounded the vehicles. In the rubble, I could still see the remains of a sink, stove and oven.

A lot that a fire has burned through. The house that existed before has been reduced to ashes and rubble. The remains of a sink and oven are visible.
(Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Additional photos can be found here.

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