Threatened by wildfire, UC Santa Cruz campus shows it is 'Slug Strong'

Fast thinking and teamwork help keep the campus community safe during the devastating Lightning Complex fires

dining workers pack lunches
UC Santa Cruz Dining Services staff members prepare bagged meals for campus evacuees at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Sunroom. (Photos by Nick Gonzales)
dining services team members pulled together
Dining Services team members pulled together, using the Boardwalk's Cocoanut Grove kitchen.
chef cutting potatoes
Dining is providing more than 3,000 meals per day for displaced community members.
boardwalk sign
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk opened its facilities for UC Santa Cruz operations to help support evacuated residents.

Sparked by a dry lightning storm, the CZU Lightning Complex fire has scorched nearly 80,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, destroyed hundreds of homes, and forced more than 70,000 people—including everyone on the UC Santa Cruz campus—to evacuate. But quick thinking by UCSC’s emergency response team and the hard work of campus staff is keeping displaced campus community members safe and supported.

As of Tuesday morning, the fire was 17 percent contained and remains about a mile north of upper campus. Over the weekend, Cal Fire crews created two fire breaks to help keep the fire from advancing toward the City of Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz.

Sue Matthews, associate vice chancellor for colleges, housing, and educational services (CHES), said the campus was well prepared for the evacuation, thanks to leadership through the campus Emergency Operations Center.

Matthews talked about the remarkable speed of the response. In the early morning hours of Sunday, Aug. 16—when the rare and destructive lightning storm hit—1,215 residents were on campus.

“By Thursday evening, when the evacuation was mandated, all remaining tenants were safely and swiftly evacuated,” she said.

She said that CHES is well prepared to respond to emergency situations.“This current fire has called forth the talents of many people who have dedicated time and training, year over year, to be prepared,” Matthews said.

Fire responders, the UC Santa Cruz Police Department, and staff members in CHES and Transportation and Parking Services (TAPS) joined forces to make sure that everyone on campus was taken care of and moved out of the evacuation zone.

"Our Banana Slug community has come together in such incredible ways," noted Chancellor Cynthia Larive in an Aug. 22 message to the campus community.

'Slug Strong'

When the fires broke out, campus residents included undergraduates, graduate students, employees, affiliates, and family members, said Jean Marie Scott, an associate vice chancellor for Business and Administrative Services. Staff members from across the campus demonstrated their problem-solving skills and tireless work ethic to look after this community, Scott said.

“Simply put, we’re Slug Strong," she said. Many of the evacuated UC Santa Cruz community members relocated with friends and families. Others were taken to the University Town Center in Santa Cruz or to various Santa Cruz hotels, including the Carousel Beach Inn and the Sea and Sand Inn.

A few stayed overnight at the Cocoanut Grove at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which was used as a relocation center for UC Santa Cruz. On Friday, about 40 students who needed housing were relocated to residence halls at San Jose State University, which threw open its doors for students in need.

Quickly changing plans

Earlier in the week, prior to the need to move everyone off campus, Scott and the campus’s emergency management team had talks about setting aside parts of campus as possible evacuation sites that could be used to support evacuees from Boulder Creek, Felton, and other threatened areas.

But the fire grew so quickly that the plan had to change. By Wednesday morning, based on the fire's growth and direction, the campus shifted gears as the team evaluated evacuation. From that point on, the team was “laser-focused on the risks, challenges, and immediate needs" of campus residents, Scott said.

At that point, UC Santa Cruz already had a major logistical challenge on its hands; the campus had been managing an evacuation of the community that lived on Mount Hamilton, close to UC's historic Lick Observatory, which overlooks San Jose and was in the path of the SCU Lightning Complex Fire. (Lick Observatory appeared to have escaped serious damage as the fire swept across Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose on Wednesday. All observatory staff and Mt. Hamilton residents are safe.)

At the same time, along the Big Sur coast, another wildfire was sweeping across the 8,000-acre Landels-Hill Big Creek Natural Reserve that UC Santa Cruz manages. Six UCSC staff members on site assisted fire crews in protecting research buildings and residences. All are safe.

Drivers at a moment's notice

Campus drivers worked hard to make sure community members could clear off campus in case of an evacuation order. TAPS staff understood that drivers would have to be available 24 hours a day in case an evacuation began in the small hours of the morning.

“We had some drivers agreeing to stay overnight in empty dorm rooms so they could hit the ground running should the need arise at a moment’s notice,” TAPS Director Dan Henderson said.

Once the campus moved to evacuate, the biggest challenge was making sure each resident was accounted for. Campus police went door to door in the dorms and other housing services, checking up on residents.

Boardwalk, Dining Services care for evacuees

UC Santa Cruz faced another daunting challenge: what convenient, centrally located, and spacious area could serve as a relocation center for evacuated UC Santa Cruz community members?

Fortunately, the Seaside Company, owner of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, agreed to let UC Santa Cruz make use of its Cocoanut Grove Ballroom as an evacuation center with kitchen and dining space so UC Santa Cruz Dining Services could prepare and serve meals to evacuees.

Currently, dining is providing more than 3,000 meals per day including breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for displaced UC Santa Cruz community members as well as other displaced area residents in 20 shelters across the county, said William Prime, executive director of Dining Services.

Prior to the fire, the campus had an arrangement with the county to provide about 1,000 meals a day to various county sites, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That number has now grown to 3,400 via county shelters.

Additionally, another 300 meals per day are being provided to displaced staff and their families at the University Town Center in Santa Cruz.

The campus’s prime food vendor, Performance Foodservice, provided a large refrigerated semi trailer to support dining operations storage needs, Prime said.

“We’ve had volunteers from many campus departments,” he said. “The energy of the kitchen has been amazing, and everyone on the team understands the impact our service is providing for our community.”

Support for the long-term

Recognizing how many employees have been affected by the wildfire, employees in Staff Human Resources began focusing on how they could streamline support services and create new ways to get help.

The campus created two hotlines for employees in need, one providing emergency housing assistance and another for general questions. Other forms of help include emergency loans, counseling support, and administrative leave.

Staff Human Resources continues to develop other support programs to help employees.

In addition, the UC Santa Cruz Foundation and Alumni Association came together to form the 2020 UCSC Wildfire Relief Fund, which invites donors to contribute to the Slug Support Fund to support students and/or the Wildfire Relief Fund to support faculty and staff. 

'We'll make it through'

Chancellor Larive praised the problem-solving abilities and coordinated work of staff who responded to “a tragedy that has struck at the heart of our community."

"Facing a fast-moving fire and a volatile situation, our community banded together to make safety the highest priority," Larive said. "Our resilience, and our adaptability, have been tested again and again this year. We've made it through hard times before, and we'll make it through this one."

Larive said that the community response will go far beyond helping displaced people while the fire is still raging.

"Our community support must also extend into the future. We must consider the aftermath: How can we come to the assistance of those who will need alternate living accommodations in the coming months? How can we help displaced employees balance their work and home lives while dealing with the trauma and dislocation of these fires? We must continue to respond to those in need with creativity, heart, and a generous spirit. And, moving forward, we will have to be flexible while keeping in mind our mission and vision for the future.

"So let's help each other. Let's be patient. And let's continue to find ways for Banana Slugs to help one another.”

For the latest updates on the CZU Lightning Complex Fire's impact on campus, visit the UC Santa Cruz status page.

Give help by donating to the 2020 UCSC Wildfire Relief Fund.