CZU Fire

Finding Stories Among All That Was Lost: Santa Cruz Storytellers Preserve History of CZU Fire

Using objects, pulled from the ashes, to tell the story of a disaster.

NBC Universal, Inc.

How do you tell the story of something so big? Of a fire that burned close to 90,000 acres, destroyed close to 9,000 buildings?

If you are Shmuel Thaler and Nikki Silva, you start small. As in, a single object.

Thayler, a photographer for the Santa Cruz Sentinal, and Silva, an award-winning radio producer are teaming up for Lost and Found: The CZU Lightning Complex Fire Project. The project is their way of preserving the personal stories and experiences of those who lived through the CZU fire while still fresh in people's minds.

"There is an importance to recording this history right now and making a record of it," Thaler said.

The idea of Lost and Found came to Thaler after he had spent days taking pictures for the Sentinal on the CZU fire lines, capturing the flames and firefighters work to contain it. "I woke up in the middle of the night saying, 'We really need to document this,'" Thayler said. He asked Silva if she wanted to collaborate with him and she readily agreed.

The pair then sent word out to anyone who had lost their home during the CZU Fire, asking them to bring an item pulled from the ashes with them to The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Once there, Silva conducted an interview with the subject while Thayler photographed the object. Subjects were given no guidance as to what type of object to bring and the variety of choices spoke to the individuality of each person's loss.

There was the badge a CHP officer had worn for 25 years, a small bowl that held the ashes of a dear friend, and the pedals from the family piano.

"It's made me think so much about how we infuse memory and meaning into objects," Silva said.

Still, Silva was interested in much more than the object. It was often just the starting point as Silva delved into her subject's history in Santa Cruz County, their experience during the fire, and questions about whether or not to rebuild.

"When they bring their objects in and start talking the flood gates open and it’s about far more than any object they brought in," Thayler said.

Thaler and Silva are not exactly sure what the final form of this project will take, just that it needed to happen now. Silva, who has a background as a museum curator, has always been grateful to those who have taken the time to document historic moments as they were happening. She knew it was important for her to be that person for this disaster.

"Those stories are critical to the historical record and understanding this place where we live," Silva said.

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