By Antonia Bradford
On August 16th, 2020 the Santa Cruz Mountains experienced an intense dry lightning storm that sparked the CZU fire. The fire burned for 38 days, destroying 1,490 buildings including the homes of 911 families. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the fire this month, it’s a good time to check in with the status of recovery in the fire community.
By the Numbers
Total buildings lost: 1,490
Single-family homes lost: 911
Permits issued to rebuild or repair homes (ready to begin construction): 21*
Permits in the resubmittal phase needing adjustments: 10*
Permits to repair damaged/destroyed ADU: 1*
Permits Issued for Temporary Dwellings: 11*
Permits in process for Temporary Dwelling: 23*
Number of burnt parcels sold: 20
Number of burnt parcels on the market: 26
*numbers provided by the county, pending verification
The numbers are not encouraging given that we are one year out from the fire. As tensions continue to rise in the fire community the question begs to be asked: why is so little progress being made in getting families’ homes rebuilt?
The answer can be found within the walls of the county building. The vast majority of fire families are being denied progress toward recovery due to inefficiencies in the planning department and its prohibitive requirements around geology and environmental health.
Earlier this month the Board of Supervisors passed a consent item written by the Planning Department that gave the fire victims the option of deferring geology work so that forward progress could be made in construction. This deferral is to lead to a possible exception for fire victims where they can accept responsibility for geological risks, alleviating the county of liability. This sounds like a good first step. However, it has only hog-tied the geo tech industry because of concerns around liability for geologists. Concurrently, a debris flow study by a private contractor funded by the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County is about to be performed throughout San Lorenzo Valley in lieu of landowners paying for their own individual studies, some of which were in process. Again, a good move, right? But, according to county officials and geologists working with fire families, the Planning Department is requiring geo techs to include the language of this new study in their reports. As a consequence, no forward progress is possible for fire victims who live in these debris flow areas, no matter the level of risk be it low or high.
On Monday, July 12, 2021, Santa Cruz County held a zoom meeting with Supervisor Bruce McPherson and members of the planning department to offer clarity to the fire community around the lack of forward movement with rebuilding. Unfortunately, the majority of questions went unanswered. Only 100 people, including county officials, were allowed to attend and all messaging was turned off, leaving many fire victims unheard and frustrated.
The fire community has mapped out questions for the county:
- Will mitigating factors required because of the debris flow study fall solely on those who are rebuilding and not homeowners who didn’t lose their homes in those same neighborhoods?
- What disclosures will be required by homeowners who are selling their homes in the debris flow areas?
- How will the county support fire victims who run out of insurance money for rent because of all of their delays and obstacles to rebuild?
- Why are fire victims’ properties being treated like new builds rather than replacements?
- Why are geological surveys being required for non-fire related issues such as slopes and drainages when the lost home was built with permits?
- Why are ancient landslides and mudslides requiring fire victims to do costly geo surveys?
- Will homes in debris flow areas be red-tagged by code compliance?
- How many homes have been red-tagged for the same issues that are holding back fire victims from rebuilding?
- Why does the county require the waiving of debris flow to be recorded on our deeds when it is a temporary threat?
- Why does the debris flow study information have to be incorporated with our permanent building/foundation plans when the threat is temporary and gone after a few years?
- Why isn’t the county/state grandfathering septic systems on fire-loss properties?
- Since county officials have told us they defer to the state on the septic system issue, what advocacy is taking place to alleviate this potentially cost prohibitive requirement?
- How will the county’s debris flow study take place? Will the contractors be visually surveying each basin to determine actual risk?
- Where is the transparency on the fee schedule for permits?
- When was the last time the state performed an audit on the Santa Cruz County Planning Department?
- Why did the county bring on 4-Leaf if they are not taking their recommendations?
- Why spend $6 million dollars on the 4-Leaf contract instead of funneling that money to permit costs and risk mitigating factors for fire victims?
It is hard to describe the level of stress and anxiety that fire victims experience on a daily basis having to fight this battle with the County after losing everything in the fire. All we want is to be able to rebuild our homes and go home but in order to do that, we need support and clarity from officials overseeing this process. Frustrations include one official saying one thing, another saying something different. The county points to the state as having control over rebuilding, while state representatives defer back to the county. Meanwhile, fire victims are stuck in the middle, unable to move forward, and suffering greatly on a daily basis not knowing what our futures hold.
Because fire victims are feeling unheard and lack proper representation, 2 parallel movements are occurring in the San Lorenzo Valley. Fire families are organizing using the Community Driven Development model. Additionally, a movement is underway to initiate a San Lorenzo Valley Community Council to provide residents better representation with the Board of Supervisors. While community motivation is a positive thing especially with new issues going forward, fire families continue to struggle. We look forward to responses to our list of questions. We’ll keep you posted!
In the meantime, please contact the following county and state representatives and urge them to provide solutions for fire families. We were promised so much right after the fire, we’d like the county to begin keeping those promises. We just want to go home. Please help us encourage our elected officials to help us get there.
Congresswoman Anna Eshoo
Senator John Laird
Assemblymember Mark Stone
Follow these pages to keep up to date on the efforts of fire families to rebuild:
SLV Support Group for Home Loss-CZU Lightning Complex fires
Santa Cruz Mountains Fire Recovery
Santa Cruz Mountains Landowners Association
Antonia Bradford lives in Boulder Creek with her husband and five children. She is a writer, artist, and business owner. She is an advocate for fire families in the area, having lost her own home in Boulder Creek. She is committed to making contributions to the San Lorenzo Valley community wherever and however she can.
Photo of the Fallen Leaf neighborhood in Boulder Creek by Christopher Bradford