For more than 70 years, families have flocked to the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm, high atop 2,600-foot Ben Lomond mountain, hunting for the perfect holiday tree and lasting memories.

All that changed this year, when a raging wildfire swept down the mountains near Santa Cruz, narrowly missing the 46-acre farm at first, before turning and consuming about 40,000 of the Christmas trees growing there.

For Ed and Louise Moran, the fire may have taken part of their family legacy, but it did not destroy it. The couple remain determined to replant and keep one of the nation’s oldest Christmas tree farms going.

The Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm opened in 1948 when Howard A. Nielsen planted what he called a “tree plantation.” In the early 1970s, ownership passed to Fred Jensen, who had been out for a Sunday drive when he found himself at the tree farm — and unexpectedly in conversations with Nielsen to buy the property. Jensen sold the tree farm to his daughter and son-in-law in 2015.

“We hadn’t been thinking about taking it over,” Ed Moran says, “but it was important to everyone to keep it in the family.”

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Both burned and green trees are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran is photographed at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: A small patch of green trees is seen among burned trees from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: A burned sign post is seen at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. Firefighters saved the sign during the fire. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran is photographed with her dog Jasper near a burned tree at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Crews remove burned trees at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Burned trees, some sprouting green, are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran is photographed by burned trees with her dog Rue at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: A burned tree is seen at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Both burned and green trees are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran drives a golf cart at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Burned trees are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: A burned tree stump is seen at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: New seedlings are seen near the chicken coop at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Both burned and green trees are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran is photographed near a burned tree at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: A drone view of the 46-acre the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm is seen in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran is photographed with her dog Jasper at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: A burned tree is seen at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Both burned and green trees are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran walks down the path from her father Fred Jensen’s destroyed house at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Burned trees are seen at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Both burned and green trees are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran walks past the gate at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: The town of Boulder Creek is seen from the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Wood chips from trees are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: A white fir is seen at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Burned trees and piles of wood chips are seen from this drone view at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by the Moran family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

  • SANTA CRUZ, CA – DECEMBER 09: Co-owner Louise Moran walks with her dog Rue as a crew clears burned trees and chips them at the Crest Ranch Christmas Tree Farm in Santa Cruz, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020. The farm, on Ben Lomond Mountain in Bonny Doon, has been owned by her family for more than 40 years and is recovering after the CZU Lightning Complex fire tore through the area in late August. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

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Since moving to the farm from Sacramento, the Morans had settled onto the property and built a home for their daughter and son-in-law, who helps manage the farm. Everything was lining up to be a good year and they were looking forward to Thanksgiving, when they would open for the season.

But on the morning of Aug. 16, lightning storms set off a series of fires that would eventually be known as the CZU Lightning Complex. The wildfires burned for 38 days, destroying 1,490 buildings and scorching 86,509 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties.

The Morans received a call around midnight on Aug. 18 telling them to evacuate. Ed Moran recalls seeing an ominous orange glow as the fire bore down on them. They headed for safety with Louise’s father, their daughter and grandson, while their son-in-law, Ben Gillum, stayed behind.

That first day, they learned the fire had missed them, sweeping by on the outer edge of the farm. The next day, the fire shifted course and burned through the heart of the property.

Gillum, who had been putting out fires on the property and in the compound where the families lived, was forced to evacuate. When they were able to return a few days later, the Jensen home and about 85 percent of the trees had burned. They were lucky, Moran says, that the other homes were spared.

It’s been hard to live with the destruction, he says. The trees were not insured, and while they plan to replant, the farm could take years to recover. Depending on the variety, it can take 4 to 15 years for the trees to mature. They also lost miles of drip irrigation that will need to be replaced and reinstalled.

One of the biggest challenges, Moran says, is getting seedlings to replant. They missed the window for getting seedlings for this year, so most of the planting will have to wait until 2021.

The tragedy has provided some bright spots, however. The Morans calculated the inventory they had left, augmented it with 250 cut trees purchased from an Oregon farm and decided they could open the farm for just three days in late November.

They awoke on Thanksgiving morning to find 15 to 20 cars already lined up outside the gates.

“A lot of families have been coming here for years,” Moran says. “Some of them for 60 years or more. It’s a wonderful tradition for them and it brings such joy to us.”

The fire and the COVID-19 restrictions also have given them space to rethink their parking and picnic areas, something they had been wanting to do for a while anyway. With those improvements, Moran says, they expect to provide an even better experience for the tree seekers.

The community has come out in full support of the farm. Friends set up a Go Fund Me account, and customers have added messages of encouragement on Crest Ranch’s web page, www.crestranch.com, recounting their long traditions.

“Our family has been coming to Crest Ranch,” one family posted, “to choose our Christmas trees since 1974, starting the year after we married. Adding children in 1980, 1981 and 1983. And continuing the tradition adding our children’s spouses in 2007 and 2008, and now a third generation, adding our grandchildren. We’ll be coming up tomorrow, with all three of our kids (and) their families. Thanks for providing a family tradition for us. God Bless!”

“We came today for the 43rd year in a row,” the Scofield family wrote. “My family (has) visited your tree ranch, and enjoyed year after year of joy thanks to you and your family. We have made four generations of memories that have been priceless. My thanks to you and your family for always providing such a lovely, warm and inviting atmosphere for myself and my children… Thanks again for sharing your home, your trees and your family with our family.”

“We have been coming to Crest Ranch every year since 1980,” another family wrote. “It is so much a part of our holiday tradition that it is considered the first Christmas present we give to each other every year… We live close by in Boulder Creek, but consider ‘going to get the tree’ one of the best trips of the entire year. Thank you. It wouldn’t be Christmas without you.”

The Morans say they have been touched by the outpouring of love and support. While it might be easier to cut their losses and move on, they are determined to keep going.

“We have a strong feeling about the property,” Moran says, “that it needs to continue to be a tree farm.”

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By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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