We Lost Our Home to a Wildfire

On the night of August 19, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols was taping up the walls in a bedroom of his home, prepping to lay some plaster. He and his wife, Dana, built their house 20 years ago by a creek in the redwoods north of Santa Cruz, California, with reclaimed Douglas fir beams and ledge stone, taking methodical care with every detail down to the light switches. “I was blessed to live in a biologist’s heaven,” he says, “and it was the best place to raise our kids.”

A Bluetooth speaker was blaring Alexi Murdoch. But he heard the knock on the door. The night before, a storm had blown in. It was “stunningly beautiful,” Nichols remembers, unlike anything he’d ever seen. Over the course of 72 hours, around 11,000 bolts of lightning touched down across central California, starting 367 wildfires. One, which came to be known as the CZU Lightning Complex fire, was burning across the ridges and through the canyons towards Nichols’s house.

His neighbor, Ian Abernathy, was at the door. “We’re getting out,” he said, “now.” Nichols threw a few things into a duffel, loaded his dog, George, in the Jeep, and drove down the dirt road, aiming south. By the next morning, his home was gone. He called his oldest daughter, Wallace Grayce, who had left for college only the day before, to break the news. “You have to kneel down and honor the weather,” he told her. She began to cry. So he wrote her this letter.


My Dearest Wallace Grayce,

We built your home around you when you were still inside your mother.

We built it stronger and more sturdy than it needed to be. I thought a lot about every piece of wood and stone. Every knob and switch. We filled it with our books, musical instruments, and interesting animal bones. I imagined you looking down after a bath through the railing upstairs.

People who visited always asked about the overbuilt stoutness and soulfulness of our home. I always said that I built this house around my baby girl to protect and raise her, and her sister, to be strong and healthy. I hoped that it would instill a sense for natural quality, authenticity, and design.

Your house in the redwoods, by the creek and ocean, lasted nearly 19 years.

It survived fires, droughts, floods, and earthquakes. It also survived some of our great parties, our friends’ weddings, holiday gatherings, and many sleepovers.

It held thousands of visitors, beautiful music, salmon dinners, and rich, deep conversations. You were there for it all.

I had hoped that it would be yours some day and I was working hard to keep it.

The day after you left for college, it burned to the ground in a wildfire caused by lightning in the most beautiful storm I have ever seen. I believe it served its original purpose fully and completely.

All that remains standing is the chimney and fireplace that warmed us as we slept—it was built tall of stone to last for millennia.

The author with his youngest daughter, Julia
The author with his youngest daughter, Julia (Photo: Ian Abernathy/@dendro.photo)

You are strong, thanks to this home. You carry the memories of our canyon. You are made of Mill Creek water, the fruit from our trees, Swanton berries, and Pacific salmon. You are my wild child.

I am so proud of you. I wish I could have protected our home from the fires. But I couldn’t and I didn’t.

But please carry the sweet memories with you wherever you go.

Stay safe, study hard, and come home often for hugs. Please.

I love you, peanut.

Dad


At least 330 structures have been destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex fire, with thousands more threatened. To donate to relief efforts click here. To support Nichols’s ongoing biology work, click here. 

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