On Sunday, August 16, Northern California suffered a freak lighting storm, triggered by dry unstable weather patterns. The storm produced hundreds of lightning strikes over several thousand square miles of land. With the dry and arid summertime climate in California, the lightning ignited several very large wildfires throughout the state.
One of those fires was named the CZU Lightning Complex fire, which originated in the Santa Cruz mountains, south of San Francisco. Thousands of local residents were forced to evacuate, including the entire Garrahan family. As the flames approached the family home, Brian Garrahan, a semi-retired former factory KTM off-road racer, decided to stay behind and fight to save his family home. It was a heroic and dangerous undertaking, attempting to save his own family home, and many others.
With the fire now out and the rebuilding process under way, we rang up Brian to learn about his experience.
Racer X: Brian, thanks for taking a few minutes to chat. Before we talk about the fire, tell us a little bit about your racing career.
Brian Garrahan: Well, off-road wise, I have done pretty much everything. I focused a lot on the Hare Scrambles, Enduro, and GNCC events. I did the ISDE nine times. I was on the world trophy team four times, and I rode junior team three times. I’ve raced Baja. Pretty much raced almost everything in the off-road industry, in short. I rode for KTM with both support rides and factory rides from the mid-‘90s until the mid-2000s. From there I had a Suzuki support ride, but I broke my leg, and it was short lived. From there I went to Yamaha. When I was on the Yamaha, I ended up winning three National West Hare Scramble Championships, which was cool.
And today you are still involved as coach and mentor?
That’s right. Today I run Garrahan Off-Road Training. It’s just a little off-road training business. We kind of cater towards beginner riders. I have a rental business and I offer bikes and gear. I offer everything for all age and skill levels, and always in the dirt. I do stuff at the state parks and some private property here and there.
You and your family are natives of the Santa Cruz mountains in Northern California. Tell me about the fires, and what your experience was.
So, we had the CZU Lightning fire up here. It came in on August 18th. I got a text message from my brother telling me we had to get out. So, I went up to my dad’s house. I’m in the process of remodeling my house so all my belongings and my motorcycle shop is at my dad’s place. All our motorcycle stuff was up there. It was a lifetime worth of stuff, not just mine, but my brothers and my dad’s. So, we went to my dad’s house first to evacuate family, my dad and my brother’s family, and grab a couple of the things that we had there. We ended up evacuating. My dad has a museum and we’re just all crazy motorcycle enthusiasts. He probably had over a hundred motorcycles at the property. I probably ended up putting 25, 30 bikes out in the middle of a field and we took ten with us. We also took some small belongings and stuff like that. But you really don’t know what to take at that moment. After everyone was evacuated, I went back up there that night to try and save the house and ranch. I couldn’t just sit there not knowing what was going on. I rode up there on the dual sport motorcycle. I was already encountering fire before I even got to the property, and when I arrived to the property, the fire was a hundred yards from the house and shop. I ended up getting a couple of CDF [California Department of Forestry] Fire guys to come up there. We fought vigorously as much as we could. The shop and the house started getting engulfed in fire and we couldn’t stop it. In a last-ditch effort, we ended up cutting all the trees and brush around the museum because there’s lots of my dad’s old bikes in there that are irreplaceable. And then the CDF ended up hosing and soaking the building down before they had to evacuate to protect their own safety. We had to leave again because it was a Crown Fire [note: Crown Fire is when the tops of trees are burning] and it was too dangerous to be in that area. The next morning, I ended up going back to the property to see and survey the damage. I got on my motorcycle and rode in through some back trails, as all the main roads were closed and locked down. I saw the house and shop had been burned to the ground, but the museum was still standing. So, I called some friends because there was still fire everywhere. They came up. We pulled all the bikes out of the museum and then we kind of realized how real the fire actually was at that point.
That must have been really hard to see your family home completely gone.
It was. Then on my way back out, I went back down to where I’m living, which is my fiancée’s house in Boulder Creek. I noticed how close the fire was enclosing in on her West Park neighborhood, so I ended up staying and fighting fire that whole night. We were cutting fire lines around all the houses. Unfortunately, we were super short on help. There were only three CDF firefighters for the entire neighborhood, and all we had was just a pick and shovels between all of us. We fought the fire that night and saved what we could. Late that night I was on my bike and riding around. I came across a friend just down the road and noticed that he was by himself. So, we teamed up and went to his house for more supplies and some rest. Then that next morning, my brother Patrick arrived along with some other local friends. For the next two or three days we just kind of worked ad protected the neighborhood that we were in. Tried to make the fire do as little as damage as possible.
Wow—that’s crazy. How many structures do you think you guys saved?
I would say we saved at least six or seven homes, probably more. It’s hard to say because the fire would come, the fire would go. You’d put something out and it would then come back, then we would go back, put the fire out again. We were just doing what we could with what we had. We definitely saved a few though. In front of my house in West Park, we cut a 400-yard line and saved at least four or five houses just in this neighborhood alone.
Wow. That’s really remarkable. I understand the firemen were just stretched so thin that they didn’t even really come to the town of Boulder Creek. Is that right? You were kind of on your own?
Yeah. We were pretty much on our own. There were three CDF firemen, but they didn’t have any water. They were just on foot and had some hand tools. They were just cutting lines like I was around houses.
Of the non-professional fireman that stayed behind, how many of them were motorcycle guys?
Quite a few actually. My brother, Patrick for one. Then my tenant, Ron. He showed up a couple days later on his motorcycle. Just more locals. They ride motorcycles, but just the local woodcutters, the local Santa Cruz Mountain boys. Particular people stayed in town to help out that had the strength and knowledge to do so. Boulder Creek had a good following of people. There’s also a lot of people up in Bonnie Dune area that stayed and saved houses.
After the fire started to slow and the threat diminished, you still stayed behind and were feeding animals and checking on neighbors’ houses. How was that?
I was bringing food to some people that didn’t leave. Once you’re in, they wouldn’t let you leave your property, it was really strictly controlled by the police. It’s hard to leave your property, so I was bringing civilians some food. I was helping feed a bunch of pets because I was able to get around better on my dual sport motorcycle and could maneuver pretty good. Then at the end of that I ended up getting a job with the San Lorenzo water district because our community didn’t have any water. I couldn’t really move back into my house on West Park unless we had water, so I ended up working for the water district and helped them recover some of their water system.
How were you able to maneuver with all the check points and stuff? You just didn’t leave? I know there were several reported cases of looting within the evacuation zone and therefore the police were not messing around.
Well, for one thing, I didn’t leave. And then I’ve learned a lot of good tricks from sneaking into the paddocks over the years without a pass! [Laughs] But kidding aside, anytime I was on my bike I saw “law officer” I would just pull over, have my helmet off and my ID out before they even had me pulled over. So, I was very cooperative. I wasn’t trying to run from them and be an outlaw or anything like that. Every time I was encountered with an officer, I was very polite and very respectful.
What a crazy experience. Obviously, it’s pretty gnarly and traumatic in some senses and difficult and honorable as well. What is your takeaway from the experience?
For me it was pretty surreal. Something that it’s hard to put yourself in. I think from being in the situations that I’ve put myself in, I felt like I was always in control of the situation and I was always calm and collected. I wasn’t trying to do anything heroic or anything out of the ordinary. That’s just the person I am. Someone who doesn’t turn from his fears and attacks his fears, in a sense I’d say. Being the motorcycle racer I am, well, I am trained and conditioned to keep calm, trained to keep my heart rate down, and trained to accommodate the situation and get through to the other side, no matter what. When you’re in Baja you have to be relaxed. When you’re in the woods, you have to be relaxed. You have to know your surroundings at all times. So, I think that definitely helped in that aspect, for sure.
So, what was the final tally of the loss for your family?
My dad built the house for our family many years ago, and its gone. The house was built by him, as was the shop. We had over a hundred motorcycles, we lost some, maybe 15 or 20 motorcycles. We were able to save most of them though. As anyone knows that’s a motorsport guy, just having your own garage, we all know what’s in that garage after so many years. We had a lot of irreplaceable stuff. For my dad, it’s what he lost. He built that house to raise his family. That’s irreplaceable. I can replace a helmet and I can replace a pair of boots, but it’s hard to replace something like that.
Brian, thanks for chatting. Is there anything you want to pass forward having gone through all of this?
I’d just like to thank all the CDF firefighters and first responders. The list goes on with all the people that helped and are continuing to help out. All the people that donate stuff, food, clothing, water. It’s just an outreach of people helping out. It’s pretty amazing. As for learning something from it? I would just say keep the branches and trees far, far away from your house. That’s the single best thing you can do.
Photos courtesy of Brian Garrahan.