There’s a Martha’s Vineyard connection to one of the wildfires that burned thousands of acres on the West Coast. The family of Wallace J. Nichols, whose brother is Island musician Johnny Hoy, lost their home in Davenport, Calif., in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire Aug. 20.
Nichols is a marine biologist who has been to the Vineyard as recently as last fall, when he gave a talk at the Oak Bluffs library about his book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, Or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do.”
The fire destroyed 86,609 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, destroying 1,490 structures and 925 single-family homes, according to the Mercury News. One of them is the home where Nichols and his wife, Dana, raised their daughters Grayce and Julia for the past 19 years.
Nichols was never officially evacuated from the house by county officials, but acting on the strong advice of his neighbors, he packed what he could and left with his 15-year-old daughter, Julia, and the family dog, George. Dana and Grayce were on the East Coast, where Grayce is starting her freshman year at Syracuse University. (More on that in a moment.)
“It did whip up pretty fast, and that storm that set off about 600 fires in the region was pretty impressive,” he said. “It all kind of transpired quickly.”
Nichols estimates he was gone only hours before the fire destroyed the family home. “The thought crosses your mind to stay and fight. We have two big water tanks, some hoses, a fire extinguisher, I’ve got a fire helmet. But when I went back, I realized that would have been deadly. It’s up a canyon — one way in and one way out — if I’d gotten trapped with a tree down … You have thoughts in retrospect about the could-have, should-have, the things I didn’t grab. Could I have defended our home?”
When Nichols and Julia returned to the canyon the next day, they found a TV crew apparently lost in the area, looking for news to report about the fire. Nichols agreed to let the reporter and cameraman tag along as they hiked to the site of the family home, climbing over still-smouldering logs. Once there, they found just the stone fireplace and chimney still standing. Everything else was a charred mess.
“There’s nothing; I thought I’d find something,” he tells the reporter, tears filling his eyes.
One of the only other items Nichols found was a teacup from his mom’s wedding, which he sent to Grayce at Syracuse. He also sent a touching letter that he posted on his blog: “I had hoped that it would be all yours someday, to share with your friends, and I was working hard to keep it,” he wrote. “The day after you left for college, it burned to the ground in a wildfire caused by lightning in the most beautiful storm I have ever seen. I believe it served its original purpose fully and completely.”
Nichols told The Times it’s best that his daughter had left the day before to go to college, otherwise it would have been difficult for her to leave. School is the best place for her, he said.
“I wish I could have protected our home from the fires. But I couldn’t and I didn’t,” Nichols wrote. “But please carry the sweet memories with you wherever you go. I love you, peanut. Stay safe, study hard, and come home often for hugs. Please. Love, Dad.”
Nichols said he carried a beer with him to the house the day he went to inspect, and stopped for a moment to share a drink with the reporters and to think about those memories.
Nichols said he’s not sure what he’s going to do with the house yet. Right now, it’s all about the cleanup, and then having a conversation with his wife and children about whether to rebuild there, build something different there, or find something completely different. He says he has an eye on a lighthouse property on the East Coast that’s for sale.
The house that was there was built to raise kids, he said: “They’re still growing and learning, but they’re largely raised. Whatever we do will reflect whatever is ahead.”
Nichols said the redwood trees will likely survive, but other tree species are dead, and potential hazards that also have to be taken down. He said the county is being flexible on permitting — cutting fees and expediting them.
“It’s grotesque and it’s heartbreaking, but at the same time it’s fascinating — the physics, the chemistry, and the fire ecology,” Nichols said. “My No. 1 priority right now is to responsibly clean up our mess, which is a weird way to describe your home. Right now, it’s just a mess. Scrapped metal, just a mess.”
Lost among the rubble is some irreplaceable work. “I had several books and journals in progress,” he said. “… It’s gone. There’s no digital archive. Decades of journals and slides and photography. It’s just sort of clarifying in a way — all those unfinished projects are done, off the list.”
Nichols said his brother Johnny Hoy has visited, and even did a benefit concert nearby for the Homeless Garden Project while he was there.
Reacting to what happened to his brother’s home, Hoy told The Times, “It’s a tragedy, a bonafide tragedy. I’ve been to that house, and he and his wife built it as a family homestead and put their hearts and souls into it,” Hoy said. “Now they have to start over.”
Hoy said it did make him think about what it would be like if there were a wildfire on the Island. “We might find out. There’s a lot of houses on the Vineyard if there’s ever a forest fire. The Vineyard used to burn regularly. It could happen here. It’s dry. It made me want to go clean up the woods.”
Nichols said he’s been asked about a GoFundMe page, but he’s not interested in that kind of help to rebuild. Anyone who asks about helping, he encourages to support his creative work at patreon.com/bluemind.