Swanton Pacific Ranch

Rebuilding and Regrowing from the Ashes

When the CZU Lightning Complex Fire swept through Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch in Santa Cruz County in mid-August, it consumed much of the ranch and its structures. The intense heat destroyed historic buildings and relics that once told the storied past of the ranch — a gift made to Cal Poly by alumnus Al Smith nearly three decades ago that has been transformed into a unique learning hub. Yet, while much was lost, a sense of hope is already emerging from the charred remains.

The property, an ecologically diverse living laboratory, is characteristically used by hundreds of Cal Poly students annually through internships, courses, field trips and research. The College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences manages the ranch, which is located 15 miles northwest of Santa Cruz and three miles north of the quaint coastal town of Davenport.

Since the fire, access to the ranch has been fairly restricted due to ongoing spot fires, downed power lines and burned out root holes. A full assessment of the damage is still ongoing, but it is clear that important structures, including the Al Smith House, Seaside School House, Red House, Archibald House, Staub House and yurts, Cal Barn, Little Creek House, Car Barn, rail cars, Roundhouse and Car Shop were all destroyed.

Swanton Pacific Ranch staff, who were able to evacuate all of the ranch’s livestock, paint a haunting image of the days surrounding the fire. They worked tirelessly in the days preceding it to salvage what they could, only for many of them to lose their own homes and personal items as the rest of the ranch burned. “When I went back onto the property the day after, it was as if my eyes couldn’t believe what they were seeing — entire structures were just no longer there,” said Brian Dietterick, longtime ranch director who also lost his home on the ranch to the fire. “It was simply unbelievable and almost apocalyptic.”

This is not the first fire that Dietterick had weathered at the ranch. In 2009 the Lockheed Fire, which destroyed nearly 8,000 acres in the surrounding area, burned about 1,000 acres of the 3,200-acre Swanton Pacific Ranch. “The nature of this fire was much different; this one was burning so hot it was generating its own wind patterns, coming from the ridges down through the valleys and just scorching everything down to the channel bottoms,” said Dietterick. “Everyone knew that fire could happen again, but for it to consume so much is just unbelievable. But it happened, and we can’t change that.”

Dietterick has long championed a plan to expand the educational opportunities offered to students at the ranch, with the goal of building an educational learning center and field camp. While those plans are temporarily halted, a larger revisioning for the ranch is being prompted by its destruction. Educational opportunities at the ranch extend beyond the traditional classroom and offer hands-on lessons in sustainable agriculture, timber harvesting, natural resource management and riparian protection. These opportunities will now include research on the impacts of fire, recovery and prevention, all issues that are vital to the state of California and beyond.

Looking Forward

The fire, while devastating, presents an opportunity to conduct a revised strategic vision for the ranch. The college is committed to rebuilding the ranch in a sustainable way, which will be accomplished through a combination of university resources, including insurance reimbursement, and private donations. That work will begin in early 2021 and include stakeholders from both inside and outside the university.

The fire provides numerous research opportunities for students and faculty, including the resurgence of trees and vegetation following the burn, and community, building and landscape design. At the same time, Swanton will play a pivotal role in ongoing wildfire research being done at the state and federal levels to improve prevention strategies and post-fire recovery efforts as wildfires have burned more than 4 million acres in California this year alone.

“This is an opportunity to really think about how we can tailor our teaching and research program at Swanton Pacific Ranch to address the various serious realities facing our society,” said Jeremy James, head of the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department. “The ranch is vital to our Learn by Doing philosophy and provides excellent learning opportunities, but it has not been really intentionally embedded in the reality of what we are facing in the terms of climate change, megafires and the other large issues facing California and communities across the globe. This is an opportunity to do that.”

Combining efforts with Cal Poly’s burgeoning Wildland Urban Interface Fire Institute, expanding faculty and student research opportunities, and collaborating with industry and statewide agencies is just one of many steps forward. “As we emerge from the ashes, Swanton Pacific Ranch’s mission will be as critical in the future as it has been in the past,” said Dietterick. “We are training students and professionals so that they can better plan forest and community management, reducing the risk for these types of devastating fires."

Support immediate relief efforts and future growth by donating to the Swanton Pacific Ranch Recovery Fund at: crowdfund.calpoly.edu/project/22001.

To hear more about what Swanton Pacific Ranch and Swanton Pacific Railroad means to those who work and study there and their hopes for the future, click here.

Visit Cultivate Fall 2020 to read more stories.

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