As firefighters continue to battle wildfires in the Bay Area and beyond, tens of thousands have been forced from their homes, many with no clear picture of when they will be able to return. The displaced include many members of the Bay Area Jewish community, with many having seen their homes and other property destroyed. J. is following the fires and reporting on their impact on the Jewish community. Readers are encouraged to share any Jewish-related news with firstname.lastname@example.org. Check back often for updates.
For 20 years, Jennifer Bird has lived on the Molino Creek Farm Collective, a 30-acre community about 15 miles northwest of Santa Cruz. Its nine families live among tomato, cherry and avocado orchards.
But the serenity of the farm is now threatened by wildfire — and Bird, along with her husband, Ian Alper, daughter, Paula, and the family dog, were forced to evacuate on Aug. 20 as the CZU Lightning Complex blaze crept closer.
“It was this blood-orange kind of sky,” Bird said, describing the scene. “Flames were licking up as we were driving out.”
Participants in a grassroots Jewish Renewal community in Santa Cruz called Chadeish Yameinu, Bird and her family first went to a hotel, but now they’re staying with friends while Bird, a kindergarten teacher, conducts remote classes.
Many of the crops on the Molino Creek Farm have been destroyed, as well as most of the community’s water towers. And Bird said it may be weeks before she is able to return home, since the farm’s off-the-grid infrastructure is damaged.
Luckily, Bird’s home has been spared by the fires, a resident who stayed behind has informed her.
The fires bearing down on the Santa Cruz region had burned more than 81,000 acres, obliterated some 590 structures and killed one person, according to Cal Fire as of 9 a.m. Thursday.
That group of fires and two others — the SCU Lightning Complex fire east of San Jose and the LNU Complex Fire in the Napa area — were painstakingly being brought under control by firefighters, and were anywhere from 21 to 35 percent contained as of Thursday, according to Cal Fire.
All the while, affected residents are wondering when they would be able to return to the evacuated fire zones.
Kate Longini Pratt of Ben Lomond, a town located at the epicenter of the fires in the Santa Cruz Mountains, said she and two daughters had to evacuate twice.
“I tore through my house,” Pratt said. “I got my kids, my cat and a change of clothes.”
The three initially left their home on Aug. 19 and stayed in a family member’s RV close to UC Santa Cruz. But on Aug. 21, with conditions in that area having worsened, Pratt and her daughters were forced to move again, this time relocating to the Mountain View home of her sister, who works for the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
“You couldn’t breathe,” Pratt said of the first evacuation. “It was raining ash.”
Pratt, like Bird, said she’s been told that her home is safe for now. But the town of Ben Lomond, she added, has experienced extensive damage, and it’s “completely up in the air” when she and her daughters will be able to return home.
“At this point it’s wait and see,” she said. “All of the infrastructure. The power lines. The water pipes. They have to make sure everyone is safe.”
Up north, Sonoma County has been hard hit by the LNU Lightning Complex. In the hills west of Healdsburg, theater director Debórah Eliezer Adabachi said the home she shared with her husband, Noor, was much more than a place to live.
“It was a place that we could house friends and artists, and have people be in community with nature,” she said “People could come and also give of themselves, volunteer and contribute.”
Now nothing is standing where the Adabachis’ home was. The house and its outbuildings burnt to the ground when fires tore through the region.
“All the structures are completely razed,” she said. “There are no more structures.”
On the couple’s wedding anniversary on Aug. 18, they were warned about the encroaching flames. Ready to go, with bags packed and cars gassed up, they and their house guests left the 33-acre, redwood-ringed property. The Adabachis evacuated to San Francisco, where they own a home that is usually rented out.
Five days later they returned to survey the damage. But there was almost nothing to be seen.
“It was devastation,” Debórah said. “It looks like a moonscape.”
Debórah said everything was destroyed except things made of metal — almost. Even the tools in Noor’s workshop, where he supported the family by making high-end, custom furniture, were gone.
“They’re just melted,” Debórah said. “Melted and twisted and gone to the ground.”
Debórah, the artistic director of the S.F. theater company foolsFURY, and her husband moved to the area near Healdsburg known as Venado four years ago to build something special. Noor is moved to tears talking about the vision behind what the couple was doing with the property.
“I was born in Lebanon,” he said. “When I was 18, I was forced to be displaced from my home country because of people fighting about religion.”
He said the couple had an idea that their home would be a place where differences could be set aside and those who came “would be able to sit on the same rug, that was woven from different beliefs.”
“We put everything we had into it,” Debórah said.
They had a cabin, full of furniture Noor made, where they lived and had guests, as well as a rose garden and outbuildings, fruit and olive trees, and a clearing where they had begun farming in spring. Very little survived the flames.
On top of it all, one of the couple’s cars was stolen when they were in San Francisco. Debórah’s sister has set up a GoFundMe page that had raised more than $8,600 as of Thursday.
The couple said it’s too soon to know what will happen next
“Part of the farm we started has survived — the old fruit trees,” Noor said. “So that’s a good place to start.”
Still, Debórah and Noor aren’t giving up on their dream of a place where people can put aside the illusions of difference.
“It’s still there, and we hope that this fire is a purifying fire,” Noor said. “[We] hope it’ll burn these illusions and bring everyone together, where they realize they’re the same.”