Two years ago, the CZU Lightning Complex fires erupted, leaving 86,500 acres charred between the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Mateo County. More than 1,490 structures were lost, and more than 900 homes in Santa Cruz County burned. In Big Basin, 97% of the 18,000-acre forest burned, and thousands were forced to flee their homes with whatever they could grab. Some folks had go-bags packed and ready; others were caught by surprise and escaped with just the clothing they had on their backs.
The trauma of the event touched every resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains and Scotts Valley as homes were evacuated, businesses were closed and the start of school was delayed—all of it during a pandemic that raged across the country.
Jo Romaniello is a marriage and family therapist who lived near Big Basin in the Forest Springs neighborhood, also known as The Acorns. Romaniello says a third of homes in his neighborhood were torched, and their water system was severely damaged.
“We didn’t return home for almost six months due to the state refusing to lift the no-use order for our water,” Romaniello says.
After the danger subsided, Romaniello created a Facebook group, “Boulder Creek and the CZU Fire Book Project.” Locals impacted by the fire were welcomed to share their stories, and the fledgling idea grew into a book that just dropped in August.
The People Not the Fire: Stories of Resilience is the result of a collaborative effort between Romaniello, co-editors Taylor Kimble and Lisa Manak-Brown, and story and photo submissions from locals throughout the San Lorenzo Valley. Every story is gripping, and each photo captures the tragic scenes cemented in the victims’ memories.
“We wanted to avoid any controversy and create a book for hope and healing,” says Romaniello. “I decided that we needed something for healing, so I invited people to contribute their stories.
Romaniello says that the participation on the page “mushroomed” a few weeks into the process.
“I found that a lot of folks wanted to participate. Taylor contacted me and wanted to support the project, so she and I worked together to communicate with residents,” Romaniello says. “Some wanted to be interviewed and have their stories written down by others; some wanted to write their stories themselves, and we welcomed them all. About a year into it, Lisa joined in, so for the last year, the three of us worked on the project.”
Kimble is a writer and freelance editor and knew she wanted to contribute to the project.
“I was training to be an editor at the time and felt I could help support Jo’s idea,” says Kimble. “As we were collecting the stories, there was such a range of feelings—some of them were funny, some were heartbreaking and some were inspirational.”
Kimble’s home on China Grade was spared, but many of her neighbors lost theirs. Kimble reached out to Manak-Brown to join the team.
“I’m a middle school teacher by trade, and I’ve always been eager to go on a new adventure with my writing,” says Manak-Brown. “I saw the Facebook group page and wondered how I could support the project. I ran into Taylor, and she said she was part of the book creation and invited me to join in.
“It was wonderful to participate in the project, not just because I wrote my own story, but since all the proceeds are going to our local volunteer fire departments, it’s benefitting others. Plus, it’s helping others heal by writing their stories and sharing them. I’m now looking for a new life in writing.”
Of all the stories in the book, Manak-Brown says the most compelling and impactful one was from Gemma Locatelli.
“I couldn’t imagine what she had gone through, losing her property,” says Manak-Brown through tears. “People do not understand the danger she was in—hearing a man scream while trying to move horses from her property, abandoning her vehicles and met with a wall of flames as she tried to escape. The horror she endured is unimaginable.”
While residents shared their stories, a local business went a step further. HeartMath LLC, a Boulder Creek-based company that focuses on personal wellness through “heart intelligence,” not only provided training and respite for firefighters during the CZU blaze but also paid for participants in the book to receive a copy.
“Their generosity was overwhelming, and we’re so grateful for their support,” says Romaniello.
Ultimately, says Kimble, the book is one of hope.
“Out of all of the turmoil people have endured, each story had something hopeful to share, whether it’s the regrowth of plants or preparing for next time or bonding with strangers. Community is a huge part of this book,” says Kimble. “There are so many situations that can destroy a community, but it was a relief to see how the opposite happened—the fire brought people together in a unique and valuable way.”
‘The People Not the Fire: Stories of Resilience’ is available on Amazon. All proceeds go to the Santa Cruz Mountains’ volunteer fire departments.