Chimney Sweep

Jon Payne made a house full of music in Boulder Creek

The only real witnesses were the chickens.

Jon and Elizabeth Payne can guess how their home in Boulder Creek burned to the ground. How the fire might have spread through the house’s three levels — perhaps starting at the top floor, with the view of Eagle Rock that made it feel like a tree house, through their bathroom with the claw-foot tub. Then to the spacious, lodge-style living room, where the couple hosted bands for crowds of 60 people, sharing wine and songs until the early hours of the morning.

Next it might have spread to the bottom floor, which housed Elizabeth’s kiln and Jon’s just-finished recording studio, packed with beloved musical instruments. It was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream — a project into which Jon, a bassist and drummer, had poured over $100,000 in the last year alone.

But the 13 chickens who lived on the Santa Cruz County property are the only ones who know for sure what the fire looked like, because there was no room for them in the truck. There were already four adults, four dogs and a cat piled into the Paynes’ Toyota Tacoma when they evacuated on Aug. 18 through clouds of thick, dark smoke.

The lightning storm had been strangely beautiful when it started in the early-morning hours of Aug. 16. The Paynes stood in front of their house until 5 a.m. watching it, awed by nature’s power, by the bright cracks through the sky and the trees bowing in hot gusts of wind.

But just 48 hours later, the blaze caused by the lightning — now known as the CZU Lightning Complex Fire — had spread to more than 40,000 acres. By early evening, a helicopter swooped low over the Paynes’ property, with an indecipherable announcement over a megaphone: Jon only caught the word “evacuate.” Moments later, the couple’s phones chimed with texts from emergency services, confirming that it was time to go.

“It didn’t feel real,” he recalls, a month later. “I was definitely still in denial.”

Still, they grabbed the go-bags full of photographs and hard drives that have stayed by the front door every fire season since 2017. They had a brief, yelling meeting with their landmates — friends-slash-tenants who live in separate spaces on the property — and Elizabeth gathered supplies for the dogs. Before they all left, Jon ran down to the chicken coop and opened the door.

“I figured we’d be back in a day or two, so I just poured a bunch of food out,” he says. “And I told them, ‘Good luck.’”

It’s hard not to wax poetic about the Santa Cruz mountains. Serpentine roads wind through expanses of towering redwoods. There’s a mysticism to the place. Tight-knit, rugged communities — what’s left of old California’s logging towns — remain happily untethered from the tech campuses less than an hour’s drive away.

Approaching Boulder Creek on Highway 9, the beauty is breathtaking, even now, with the treetops turned crispy and sepia-toned. The closer you get to the Paynes’ property, the more burnt-out cars and hand-painted signs thanking first responders dot the roadside.

But for Jon Payne, it’s simply home. A fourth-generation Californian, Jon grew up in Burlingame; his grandfather was a firefighter with the San Francisco Fire Department. He started playing in bands around age 12, and began driving to Santa Cruz to see shows as a high school student.

After he graduated from UC Santa Cruz, he and his wife, Elizabeth — a ceramic artist and fellow Burlingame High alum, whose Californian lineage goes back to the Gold Rush — eventually bought a house in Felton, eight miles north of Santa Cruz, and stayed for seven years. Jon worked as a children’s therapist for Santa Cruz County, a job he’s held for 15 years now, while playing in a handful of Bay Area bands, most notably the psych-country trio Scary Little Friends and the folk-rock duo The Painted Horses. In the last year or so, he became a regular in the scene around San Rafael’s Terrapin Crossroads, occasionally sharing a stage with owner Phil Lesh.

But having his own space for music was always the dream. “I had this vision of having a little bit of land to build a recording studio, host shows, have musician friends come and play,” says Jon, 41. “And we wanted to have gardens, make a farm. I just wanted some space and some beauty.”

Left: Before it was destroyed by the CZU Lightning Complex fire, Jon and Elizabeth Payne’s home sat on 3 acres in Boulder Creek (Santa Cruz County). Right: Jon and Elizabeth Payne stand next to the three-story chimney amid the ruins of the home.

“Left: Courtesy Jon Payne; right: Sara Gobets / Special to The Chronicle”

In 2017, the Paynes found their space in a 2,600-square-foot house on 3 acres in Boulder Creek, high on a hill dense with brush, just a few miles east of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The beauty part would take some work: The last tenants had been weed growers who didn’t take care of the house, and the shag carpets reeked of cigarettes.

Still, it had good bones, with room for gardens and animals, friends and construction projects. Then they befriended the son of the original owner, who’d built the house in the ’70s. He mentioned that the living room already had nice acoustics, thanks to his dad, an opera singer. “You would see tears in his eyes from all the memories of growing up here,” says Jon. The family was overjoyed to hear a new owner making plans for music.

Over the past three years, the couple poured themselves into the property. They planted vegetables, tore out floors, leaned into life as homesteaders. A working artist since high school, Elizabeth finally had room to make a real ceramics studio, in a garage with high ceilings, natural light and plenty of storage.

“The house was a big undertaking, and we were always a little in over our heads,” says Elizabeth, 39. “But we put every penny we had into it, we worked really hard, and it was getting done.”

The neighbors were far enough away that noise was never an issue, so the living room quickly became a focal point for music. A handful of friends recorded albums there, and as soon as the Paynes began hosting shows, the room became a fixture for local indie-rock, folk and alt-country artists like Tim Bluhm, the Sam Chase, and the T Sisters.

“It was better than any other house show I’ve ever played, because you could tell the audience felt so connected to what they were building there,” says Sam Chase, a longtime San Francisco musician, of his sold-out performance at the house in May 2018. “It wasn’t just that the property was beautiful, which it was. It was that they were so excited to share it, to have everyone experience it, to make it this home for the broader music community.”

To make ends meet, the Paynes also put two bedrooms in the main house on Airbnb. Over time, a handful of friends and fellow artists became longer-term tenants as well: a woodworker moved into the small separate cabin on the property; another friend set up a trailer, and a local photographer rented an Airstream. In the spring, after the Paynes stopped running the Airbnb due to COVID-19, that space became home to Jon’s childhood friend Chris Jones, as the two embarked on their new band, Wolf Jett.

COVID, of course, derailed those plans as well. With shows canceled, the pair decided live-streaming wasn’t their style, and instead put their energy into building a recording studio. After a few months of quarantine, they figured, Wolf Jett could emerge back onto the live circuit with a whole new album.

Meanwhile, life at the house slowed to a leisurely pace: Jon would do tele-therapy sessions, garden, work on the house. Without the rental to manage, Elizabeth had more time for her art. There were six of them on the property, providing much-needed company while they sheltered in place; they’d watch movies on the projector or relax in the ceramic-lined hot tub that looked out at the mountains.

Best of all, Jon could play music whenever he wanted. Fellow artists would sometimes tell him he was living the dream. He put the finishing touches on the studio one week before the lightning storm.

“It felt,” he says in retrospect, “too good to be true.”

Jon Payne (right) and Chris Jones, his band mate in Wolf Jett, sift through the wreckage of Jon and Elizabeth Payne's house in Boulder Creek.

Jon Payne (right) and Chris Jones, his band mate in Wolf Jett, sift through the wreckage of Jon and Elizabeth Payne’s house in Boulder Creek.

Sara Gobets / Special to The Chronicle

In the blurry, sleepless days after they evacuated but before the Paynes knew their house was gone, Jon told Elizabeth they were moving to Hawaii. He can’t remember if the conversation happened as they set up camp at a friend’s house in Felton, or a day later, when Felton too had to evacuate, and they moved to a hotel by the San Francisco airport. (They decided not to go to either of their parents’ homes in Burlingame, worried about their age and the virus.)

“It rains in Hawaii; you don’t have to worry about fires,” Jon told his wife. But they both knew it was a joke: “I love where we live so much.”

Walking the property with him now, there is no question of his reverence for this place: He points out the netting he started attaching to the hillside as soon as they could sneak back in, to help mitigate soil erosion and landslides when the rains come. He murmurs approvingly at the sight of tiny green leaves sprouting from a blackened tree stump. He still thinks about the lone fawn he saw crossing an ash-covered street on their first trip back here, and worries about the “emaciated” bobcat who let him get way too close a few days later (he put out food and water, and notified Native Animal Rescue in Santa Cruz).

It was a similar animal, Jon can guess, that took nine of his chickens, including his beloved rooster, Willy. They all survived the fire, but a few weeks ago, he returned to work on the place and found remnants of a massacre. He’s trying not to feel too sad about that one; at least, he thinks, they were food for something hungry.

Other losses have been harder to justify. The three-story chimney is all that remains of the main house, rising almost obscenely from the rubble. A metal bin contains odd items the couple have been able to recover: a ceramic bowl with two birds that lived on Elizabeth’s bedside table and held her rings. A somehow perfectly preserved teacup her grandmother brought over from England.

A blackened but apparently fireproof filing cabinet contains deeds and other paperwork, which have been crucial in communicating with the insurance company. Of course, if he had to choose between paperwork and his gear — including three vintage drum sets, a recently restored Leslie speaker, a Wurlitzer piano that Norah Jones once played when they shared a stage in Santa Cruz, and a Fender guitar amp that belonged to a friend’s father who passed away — “I’d probably go with my gear,” Jon notes dryly. “But hey, at least we don’t have to go to the DMV.”

Elizabeth’s ceramics studio is gone, and if not for her recent show at Boulder Creek’s Lille Aeske Arthouse, she would have lost years of work: Half her pieces were still installed at the gallery when the fire broke out, and half were safely packed in her car.

Willy Tea Taylor played at one of the house shows at Jon Payne's Boulder Creek home. The Paynes had just finished adding a recording studio to the property before it burned in the CZU Lightning Complex fire in August.

Willy Tea Taylor played at one of the house shows at Jon Payne’s Boulder Creek home. The Paynes had just finished adding a recording studio to the property before it burned in the CZU Lightning Complex fire in August.

Courtesy Jon Payne

Instead, she finds herself thinking about the living room with the big fireplace: the cozy gatherings and late nights full of music, when she would run around making sure people were fed. She liked having room for people to stay over — like her dad, who passed away in 2018. He loved coming to shows and spent his last Christmas at the house with family.

“We’re not really big holiday people, but I liked doing the lights,” she says. “We had these cool old glass ornaments from the ’40s and ’50s that belonged to Jon’s grandma, and we did these big family dinners. Between COVID and (the fire), it’s hard to think about the holidays coming and not being able to do that.” The practical mingles with the emotional when she thinks about what’s gone — midsentence, she remembers she needs to buy new winter clothes.

Still, when the Paynes describe what they lost, the story quickly veers outward: up the hill toward their neighbors who didn’t have insurance, who lost homes that housed multiple generations, including an 86-year-old woman who bought her place 50 years ago. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire consumed nearly 1,500 structures, including more than 900 homes. (Some 5,228 residential buildings were destroyed by California fires in August through October of this year alone.) Jon and Elizabeth Payne know exactly how fortunate they are, because they are in close, regular contact with those who were much less so.

These residents now all belong to a club that nobody wants to join: the people displaced by fire, all over the West Coast, currently deciding whether to stay or move elsewhere — knowing full well this will happen again.

The Paynes’ decision is already made.

“I belong here,” Jon says of their plans to rebuild on the property, and in an instant, it’s clear that he loves California the way people born here love California. Which is to say, all of it, innately and unconditionally — the good, the bad, the expensive and the on fire. Leaving was never really on the table.

“Every once in a while we do the math” on the financials of moving, offers Elizabeth. “But honestly, I can’t think of anywhere else I want to go.”

In recent weeks, some people have tried to reassure the Paynes that fire won’t affect the area again for many years, but they’re not so sure. Look at Paradise, for example. Jon’s uncle, a firefighter in Santa Rosa, has had to evacuate too many times over the past few years for them to think lightning won’t, quite literally, strike twice.

“It’s really sad and scary to think that it may just become too dangerous to live in this area,” says Jon. “And it’s infuriating when politics get involved and (leaders) don’t want to look at the real problem, which is that the climate is changing, and we need to look at the science and take real steps to combat that.”

There are, to be sure, circumstances that made the choice to stay easier for them than most: They are young, able-bodied, employed, child-free. They have insurance. Still, it would have been a harder decision were it not for their friends. The cabin survived the fire, and their landmates are staying put; Kevin, the woodworker, is hard at work on the little freestanding cob house he and Jon started building last year, so Jon and Elizabeth can live there while they make plans for the main house. Dozens of other friends have shown up to sift through rubble, lend construction equipment or simply bring them dinner.

In September, Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley hosted a live-streamed concert fundraiser for the Paynes, with bands like the Mother Hips, the Brothers Comatose and Goodnight, Texas. “It was a real shock wave through the music community when that house burned down,” says Sam Chase. “I think a lot of people felt like they had lost something special.” As of this writing, a GoFundMe has raised more than $21,000 for the couple.

“It’s honestly been restoring my faith in people,” says Jon. “Between politics and the way the country is right now … it’s been a reminder that people are still good-hearted, and a reminder of how much we need community.”

Left: A destroyed piano in the house. Right: A box of melted demo tapes. Most of Payne's recent music was backed up digitally, but it's unclear whether copies of his early work exists.Left: A destroyed piano in the house. Right: A box of melted demo tapes. Most of Payne’s recent music was backed up digitally, but it’s unclear whether copies of his early work exists.Sara Gobets / Special to The Chronicle

A few weeks ago, Jon mentioned to a friend that he’d like to play music one last time at his old house before the rubble got cleared away. Within days, there was a video shoot planned, with perfect strangers donating equipment, labor and time. They showed up with a U-Haul full of stuff — a rented track, expensive cameras — that Jon wouldn’t be able to pay for even under normal circumstances. Jon and his bandmates set up in the old living room, planting mike stands on top of month-old ash.

“I was thinking this is all going to be cleaned up soon, and I wanted to document it,” says Jon. “As much as I’d like to wipe it away and not think about it, this is a big part of our story.”

As a therapist, he knows about grief and its stages, and lately he is moving toward acceptance. There’s a lot to look forward to: The Paynes get to build a new place from scratch, with more modern, fire-resistant methods. He’s thinking about an outdoor stage for shows; the son of the original owner, who owns a local construction company, is weighing in on the design. He’s even getting new chickens from a friend who’s raising chicks right now, and will bring over nine when they’re old enough.

But for that afternoon, he let himself stay there, in the present, in the ruins of his old life, and think about what was gone forever. And then he sat down behind the drum kit and played.

Emma Silvers is a San Francisco writer. Email:

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