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Kitchen Sisters: Voices Of Survivors Of The CZU Lightning Complex Fire

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In California's Santa Cruz Mountains, they're marking a year since rare summer storms ignited what became the massive CZU Lightning Complex Fire. Flames consumed 86,000 acres, more than 900 homes and countless old trees. And it was months before officials declared it under control. And even then, it kept burning deep in the roots and stumps of ancient redwoods.

Independent producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, the Kitchen Sisters, have been looking and listening for what the fire destroyed and what it revealed. And they start out on that first night of the lightning storms.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TAMAR INGBER: It was so hot. We woke up and saw the skies illuminating. We couldn't sleep. So we drove down to the cliff to see those lightnings, like a web, show itself across the ocean was beautiful. The lightning was out on the horizon.

Then this huge burst of wind pushed us back. It felt like it was actually hitting us. It went from beautiful to eerie. Then we were like, we need to go home.

My name is Tamar Ingber. I work at Pie Ranch in the farm stand. I lived on (crying) Swanton Road.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Live news desk monitoring a huge wildfire - this August Lightning Complex really blew up last night.

INGBER: The house totally burned to ashes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Santa Cruz Mountains, Big Basin State Park, Boulder Creek, Bonny Doon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: Twelve thousand lightning strikes.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUNDERCLAP)

VALENTIN LOPEZ: Cascade Ranch - the fire came down very close. This is an old historic house that was built in the 1860s. Then it burned down. That's where our people were staying. We have a Stewardship Corps as part of our land trust. And they actively work on the lands every day to restore the coastal prairies, to bring back Indigenous burning methods, to do the smaller cultural burns that could prevent those large catastrophic fires.

My name is Valentin Lopez. I'm the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, president of the board of directors of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust.

We're on State Parks property, tribal territory of the Quiroste Tribe, a very powerful tribe. The Quiroste took care of these lands 10-, 12-, 15,000 years or more. When those early explorers and the boats came by, they looked at the coast of California. They said that the landscape of California was just a beautiful mosaic of different colors, of different plants. They thought it was just pure random. They did not realize there was intentional stewardship of the lands.

MARK HYLKEMA: Before Europeans came, the tribes here, they're manipulating land by burning it regularly.

I'm Mark Hylkema, supervisor of Cultural Resource Program, Santa Cruz District State Parks.

By burning the grasslands, they both improved the seed harvest for the following year, as well as the browse for the animals they hunted that grazed on those grasslands - the deer, the elk, the pronghorn.

LOPEZ: Our ancestors saw fire as being a gift from Creator to help in stewarding and managing landscapes, but also prevented the buildup of fuel loads that would result in catastrophic fires.

MARTIN RIZZO-MARTINEZ: This is the area where the Portola expedition, the first Spanish overland expedition, passed through in 1769. When they got up to that area, they were in bad shape - starving, dying of scurvy. The Quiroste took them in. They fed them seed cakes with honey, berries - really interesting foods. There were gardens up there.

My name is Martin Rizzo-Martinez, state park historian for the Santa Cruz District.

HYLKEMA: The Quiroste we know about through the mission records. They were the first to resist missionization. In those days, the Santa Cruz Mountains was very dark and, you know, mysterious to the settlers. There were grizzly bears there and redwoods and Native people still hiding from the missionaries.

RIZZO-MARTINEZ: Mission Santa Cruz baptized about 2,500 Native people in the 40 years that it was in operation. About 90% died during those mission years. They would get punished, put into stocks, whipped nearly to death - psychological torment. Fire was used as a tool of resistance by Native people. The adobe buildings were made with thatched roofs. Native peoples use flaming arrows, fire arrows, as a weapon against colonial settlements.

In Santa Cruz, they burned down a couple of the buildings. Right around that same time, 1793, the first prohibition of fires comes out of Mission Santa Barbara. There's a law that's put down, a circular sent out that says, you know, we prohibit Native people from lighting fires out in the woods. Fire became prohibited by Spanish, later Mexican and then American eras, too.

LOPEZ: When the colonizers outlawed fire, that allowed the coastal shrubs to come in to the coastal prairie. That would be followed by the Doug fir, followed by the redwood trees, which just converted one of the most biodiverse landscapes in North America.

DANA FRANK: I've walked in that area in my whole life. I went to Girl Scout camp up that road.

I'm Dana Frank, professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I've written about the history of Big Basin State Park and the history of California.

The Big Basin I remember - this thing that I always loved was this giant slice of a redwood log. You know, each ring on a redwood tree marked a year. And you could touch the rings and feel the passage of time and the ancientness of the tree. That log also had little date markers riveted into it. It started with the birth of Christ at the center of the narrative, the coronation of Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, the Crusaders, Columbus, Balboa, the landing of the Pilgrims.

It was an imperial narrative celebrating conquest, slavery. Monuments express whatever values we have at the time they're put up. And then that narrative of history, it's in the air. It's normalized. When the fires happened, that redwood tree slice burned to the ground along with its date markers.

RIZZO-MARTINEZ: When I think of the whole round from an old redwood that has these dates burnt to a crisp, I think there is an opportunity here. The fire opens up some areas - to reconsider the history and to tell it in a different way. Fires can destroy things. But they can also reveal things.

LOPEZ: Talking about issues related to climate change and how important it is to restore Indigenous sustainable ways.

HYLKEMA: It's the age of climate crisis and the age of being inclusive. The Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve, where we've been working with the Amah Mutsun Tribe to manage the land, taking out the invasives pampas grass, beating back the brush, well, the fire raged through there, too. But you know what? It did not burn the valley. It went around it.

MARTINEZ: This story was produced by Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, The Kitchen Sisters, and mixed by Jim McKee. There's more at their podcast, "The Kitchen Sisters Present." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.