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.