Author wants CZU book to bring ‘hope and healing’


Just two years ago, the CZU Lightning Complex fires erupted, leaving 86,500 charred acres between the Santa Cruz Mountains and San Mateo County. More than 1,490 structures were destroyed and 911 homes burned in Santa Cruz County. In Big Basin, 97% of the 18,000 acre forest has burned and thousands have been forced to flee their homes with whatever they can grab. Some people had travel bags packed and ready; others were taken completely by surprise and escaped with just the clothes on their backs.

The trauma of the event has touched everyone in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Scotts Valley as homes were evacuated, businesses were closed and the start of the school year was delayed, and all during a pandemic that raged across the country.

Jo Romaniello is a marriage and family therapist who lived near Big Basin in the Forest Springs neighborhood, also known as The Acorns. Romaniello says a third of the homes in his neighborhood were burned down and their water system was badly damaged.

“We didn’t return home for almost six months due to the state’s refusal to lift the non-use order on our water,” Romaniello said.

Once the danger was over, Romaniello created a Facebook group called “Boulder Creek and the CZU Fire Book Project”.

In it, Romaniello welcomed locals who had been affected by the fire to share their stories, and the budding idea blossomed into a published book that was just released in late August.

“The People Not the Fire” is the result of a collaborative effort between Romaniello, co-editors Taylor Kimble and Lisa Manak-Brown, and story and photo submissions from residents of the San Lorenzo Valley. Each story in the book is captivating in its own way, and each photo cements the images of that event in the reader’s memory.

“We wanted to avoid controversy and create a book of hope and healing,” Romaniello said. “I decided we needed something to heal, so I invited people to share their stories.

Romaniello said participation on the page “grew” within weeks of the process starting.

“I found that a lot of people wanted to participate. Taylor reached out to me and wanted to support the project, so she and I worked together to communicate with residents,” Romaniello said. “Some wanted to be interviewed and have their stories written by others; some wanted to write their own stories, and we welcomed them all. About a year later Lisa joined us, so last year the three of us worked on the project.

Kimble is a freelance writer and editor and knew she wanted to contribute to the project.

“I was training to be an editor at the time and felt I could help support Jo’s idea,” Kimble said. “As we put the stories together, there was such a range of feelings – some of them were funny, some were heartbreaking and some were inspiring.”

Kimble’s house on China Grade was spared, but many of her neighbors lost theirs. Kimble contacted Manak-Brown to join the team.

“I’m a college professor by trade, and I’ve always been eager to embark on a new adventure with my own writing,” Manak-Brown said. “I saw the Facebook group page and wondered how I could support the project. I ran into Taylor, and she told me she was part of the creation of the book and invited me to participate.

“It was wonderful to be able to participate in the project, not only because I wrote my own story, but since all proceeds go to our local volunteer fire departments, it really benefits others. Plus, it helps others heal by writing down their stories and sharing them. I am now looking for a new life in writing.

Of all the stories in the book, Manak-Brown said the most compelling and impactful was that of Gemma Locatelli.

“I couldn’t imagine what she had been through. Losing her belongings and people not understanding the danger she was in when she asked for help; hearing a man screaming for his life as she tried to remove horses from her property that were exhausted and dehydrated,” Manak-Brown said in tears. “Having to abandon her vehicles and find herself facing a wall of flame as she tried to escape – the horror she endured was unimaginable,”

As local residents shared their stories, a local business went a step further. HeartMath LLC, a Boulder Creek-based company that focuses on personal wellness through heart intelligence, not only provided training and respite to firefighters during the CZU fire, but also paid for each participant in the book receives their own copy.

“Their generosity was overwhelming and we are so grateful for their support,” Romaniello said.

Ultimately, Kimble said, the book is about hope.

“Of all the torment people have endured, every story had something hopeful to share, whether it was regrowing plants or preparing for next time or bonding with complete strangers. Community is an important part of this book,” Kimble said. “There are so many situations that can destroy a community, but it was a relief to see how the opposite happened – the fire brought people together in a unique and valuable way.”

“The People Not the Fire” is available for purchase on Amazon, with all proceeds going to local volunteer fire departments in the Santa Cruz Mountains.


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