Preserving the caring, compassion that helped us through the CZU wildfire

Watching the wildfires now burning throughout California takes me back to the anxious, uncertain days one year ago when the CZU Lightning Complex wildfire was burning through our county. These are painful times for many, even though our campus is not directly affected by the current fires.

We were lucky last year in that the CZU fire stopped short of our campus, but so many in the UC Santa Cruz and greater Santa Cruz County communities were not as fortunate. The fire burned more than 86,000 acres and destroyed an estimated 1,000 homes in our county alone. One man was killed while trying to escape the flames. The CZU Lightning Complex wildfire forever changed the lives of thousands of people, including many affiliated with our campus, and they are on my mind as we find ourselves in another dry fire season.

The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has complicated recovery for many. A suddenly huge demand for construction work coupled with a shortage of building materials has sent construction prices skyrocketing. I am hearing from local officials that many people have rebuild permits in hand, but are waiting to see if they can still afford to move forward. That is heartbreaking and extends the trauma that so many experienced.

I am also reminded, though, of the many incredible displays of kindness, perseverance and resilience that we witnessed last year, especially during the emergency evacuation of our campus. Amid so much uncertainty and loss, it was inspiring to see our community come together to help each other. I remain deeply appreciative of all who supported our students and colleagues through this time last year — our wonderful staff members, area first-responders, local businesses, city and county government officials, and the leaders of colleges and universities throughout the region who reached out with offers of assistance as soon as they saw our predicament.

I remain heartened by the tremendous response we saw to the disaster-relief fund established in the aftermath of the CZU fire by our University Relations team and championed by the UC Santa Cruz Foundation and our Alumni Association. Donations could be directed toward students or employees. All told, more than $150,000 was raised for, and quickly distributed to, dozens in our campus community deeply impacted by the fire to help them pay for food, shelter, clothing, rent payments, out-of-pocket medical expenses, and assistance with repairs for damaged homes.

Being located in an area where there is significant fire risk is something our campus has always dealt with, but that reality was brought home last year. Know that we are doing all we can to make our campus fire-safe. We actively work with city and county officials to mitigate risks and coordinate response. We have a strong, ongoing partnership with Cal Fire. The agency is very invested in the campus and surrounding community, and last month we renewed a 10-year agreement with Cal Fire for vegetation management. We also maintain our fire roads and a hydrant system in North Campus, and continue to use and maintain the fire breaks established on campus by Cal Fire during the CZU fires.

Our campus also has robust wildfire awareness and preparedness educational programs for students, staff and faculty, and this fall our Office of Emergency Services will release a new emergency-preparedness app for students and in-person trainings for staff and faculty to continue to educate our community about wildfire risks and campus response.

Thank you for your commitment to each other. Last year was a difficult one. We faced both the pandemic and the fire, but we persevered by sticking together and caring for one another. That’s how we made it through the hard times and how we’ll continue to move forward into what I know is a bright future for UC Santa Cruz. Stay well, stay safe, and stay connected.


Chancellor Cynthia Larive