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Swanton Pacific Ranch Sustains Massive Damage in Santa Cruz Lightning Fire

The rubble from a fire-damaged building, with charred trees and a smoky sky in the background

Above, a large stone house sits on a field of green grass. Below, the same house is burned to the ground.
Before and after: The Al Smith House at Swanton Pacific Ranch.

The CZU Lightning Complex fires swept through Cal Poly’s Swanton Pacific Ranch in Santa Cruz County on Aug. 19 and 20, destroying much of the ranch and many of its structures.

All staff and students at the ranch evacuated safely, and all livestock were transported off the ranch. No one was injured in the fire.

Swanton Pacific Ranch is a 3,200 acre property in Santa Cruz County that operates as a living laboratory where students learn agriculture and natural resource management techniques hands-on.

“We will work closely with both our Cal Poly family and our partners in the surrounding Santa Cruz community to rise up, rebuild and grow from the ashes,” said Andy Thulin, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Science, which manages the ranch. “For now, we are focused on the immediate needs of those Swanton staff, faculty and students impacted by the fire.”

Officials are still assessing the damage to the property, and a full assessment may take weeks or months to complete. Access to the ranch is still restricted due to ongoing spot fires, downed power lines and sink holes.

A crumpled and fire-damaged warehouse and railroad tracks
The car barn of the Swanton Pacific Railroad after the fire.

What is known so far is that many important structures were completely destroyed, including the Al Smith House, Seaside School House, Red House, Archibald House, Staub House and yurts, Cal Barn and Little Creek House.

Many elements of the iconic Swanton Pacific Railroad were also among the ruins, including the Car Barn, rail cars, roundhouse and car shop. While the locomotives were damaged, ranch staff will evaluate later whether they can eventually be restored.

The Green House, Long Barn, Bunk House, Railroad Machine Shop, Train Station, full-size cabooses and picnic grounds appear undamaged at this time.  

Cal Poly alumnus Al Smith (Crop Science, ‘44, Agricultural Education, ‘56), founder of Orchard Supply Hardware, donated Swanton Pacific Ranch to Cal Poly in 1993. He requested that the property be preserved as a working ranch dedicated to hands-on, Learn by Doing opportunities, and that the remaining large redwoods on the property be left untouched.

“Swanton Pacific Ranch is a model for the practice of informed land stewardship and sustainability,” said Thulin. “We stand by that commitment.”

The CZU Lightning Complex fires ignited on the morning of Aug. 16 and have so far burned more than 85,000 acres across Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties, according to Cal Fire.

Anyone who wishes to help Swanton Pacific Ranch and the Swanton Pacific Railroad recover from the fire can visit the college’s crowdfunding campaign aimed at rebuilding.

Photo above: The remains of the Al Smith Training Room at Swanton Pacific Ranch following the fire.