The film revisits the devastating CZU fire of 2020 – Santa Cruz Sentinel

The CZU Fire In Their Own Words – Fighting Fires, Losing Homes, and Rebuilding Community is a new 90-minute film created and directed by Peter Gelblum and produced by Mountain Community Theater in Ben Lomond.

Originally conceived as a live play, this moving film features actors from the Mountain Community Theater using the words of people who have been evacuated, lost their homes and belongings, struggled with insurance companies, fought fires dramatically and fought each other through the have supported horrifying local fires in August 2020.

The film includes cinematography by Andrew Crocker and Erik Gandolfi, who also edited the film. Stunning photos and video of the fire were donated by local photographers, including Sentinel’s Shmuel Thaler and Steve Kuehl.

Peter Gelblum has lived in Boulder Creek since 2008 and told Sentinel, “We’ve been so lucky; Our house was not touched by the fire. But it was close.” Gelblum is also an actor, attorney, and human rights activist with the Santa Cruz Chapter of the ACLU. This is his first film, although he said it might not be his last.

The CZU Fire In Their Own Words has several screenings in the Santa Cruz area including August 16 at 7:30pm at the Del Mar Theater where there will be a Q&A with Director Gelblum. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $10. All donations are split between the local volunteer fire departments and the Community Foundation’s Fire Recovery Fund. Wearing masks is strongly recommended for all performances. Visit mctshows.org for the full schedule of shows.

Verbatim film

Q: “Tell me about the making of this film and the role of Mountain Community Theater.”

A: “Mountain Community Theater is the producer of the film. I couldn’t have done it without her. You paid all the costs. I finally became President of MCT about five years ago. We were closed for live performances for two years during the pandemic. Two full seasons were wiped out and we did a lot of videos and short zoom stuff. A year into the pandemic, we thought we might open in fall 2021; COVID eased up and looked better. We actually started planning a season. I proposed this project about fire using a genre called Verbatim Theater. The best examples of Verbatim Theater are Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, about the Rodney King riots, and The Laramie Project, about the assassination of Matthew Shepard,” explains Gelblum. “In this genre, you do interviews around an event that has affected a lot of people, and you take what they say and turn it into a script. You can rearrange or rearrange things, but you can’t add anything. You deduct a lot because you have a lot more than you can use on a single piece. It is “literally” theater because every single word was spoken by one of the participants in the event. So this project on fire was approved as part of our MCT season. And then we closed again in the fall and I decided, “I’ll make this a Verbatim film instead of a Verbatim theater.” So that’s what we did.”

Q: “Tell me more about the interviews and images used in the film.”

A: “In March and April 2021, I interviewed people who lost their homes to the fire and two people who fought the fire; Boulder Creek Fire Chief Mark Bingham and Brian Garrahan, one of those guys who stayed behind and made it on his own. Wonderful people.” Gelblum adds, “I worked on the script for about six months and then selected actors to play the people I had interviewed. We shot it in mid-December 2021, mostly with actors from MCT. I then spent I spent the next few months adding the images. I have these wonderful professional photographers who give me images and videos for free. Shmuel Thaler, Steve Kuehl aka SLV Steve and many other people. We went through sixteen versions of the film.”

Q: “What was your own experience with fire?”

A: “We live just outside of downtown Boulder Creek and were evacuated on the 18th, Tuesday night. We had advance warning and my wife wanted to go ahead of me. I wanted to wait for the formal order. We packed both cars with lots of stuff and an RV. The first night we went to a friend’s in Zayante. They had not been evacuated because they were on the east side of Highway 9. They evacuated the west side of Highway 9 first. There lived a couple, theater people from MCT, and there were twenty MCT people there. As several people say in the film, we thought it was a fire drill. We thought they were evacuating just as a precaution. The next day these friends were ordered to evacuate. So we went to another friend’s in Santa Cruz for two and a half weeks. Every morning I got up at 5:30 for these Cal Fire briefings. There were fire maps showing hotspots and where houses were lost. And they weren’t always accurate. For about 10 days it was scary, really touch and go. We didn’t know if our house would make it.”

Gelblum recalls: “As it turned out, the fire was within two hundred meters of our house. It was behind the house across the street from us. Several houses burned down down our street. The firefighters are 100% dedicated to saving the city and we are on one of the streets near the city. Also, the guy in the movie – Brian Garrahan – talks about building fire lines behind the houses across from his house, which is also across from my house. He may have saved West Park Avenue and our house. When we got back to our house the only damage was soot and ash on the decks. It smelled a bit like smoke. The property was pristine and we are surrounded by trees. We felt very lucky. That was our fire experience.”

Fire wasn’t abstract

Q: “I’m glad your house was okay. One of the people featured in the film is Susan Blake, the Big Basin State Park interpreter. She says that during the CZU fire, “COVID has gone from the dominant issue to the secondary one.”

A: “That is exactly her line. I wanted to keep that throughout the editing because it was amazing what happened,” Gelblum told the Sentinel. “The first night we were evacuated to our friend’s house, we all sat close together without a mask. People drink and laugh, joke and tell stories. Everyone forgot about COVID. Instantly. It was amazing because in August 2020 COVID dominated our lives. And then suddenly, as Susan says, it became secondary. It was exceptional. The fire was so much worse. It was just more immediate and direct, with flames coming down the hill. Aside from people who got COVID early, before vaccines existed, the pandemic was pretty abstract for everyone else. The fire was not abstract.”

Q: “I think people who have walked through fire are going to be pretty emotional sitting in a theater and watching this movie.”

A: “Some people who’ve lost their homes won’t see the film because they’re not willing to go through it again,” concedes Gelblum. “Obviously everyone in the film, except for the two firefighters, lost their homes and agreed to share their stories. At both performances that we have had so far, there have been applause and a few tears. It is very powerful for people who have been through it.”

Listen to this Thursday afternoon interview with Peter Gelblum on Transformation Highway with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org.

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when you go

Demonstrations:

August 5, 9 p.m., outside – Gallery Felix Kulpa (with an exhibition of artists who were affected by the CZU fire)

7 August, 1pm – Park Hall, Ben Lomond

August 16, 7:30 p.m. – Del Mar Theater, Santa Cruz

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