“It’s not the fire that breaks you, it’s the County”
By Antonia Bradford
On February 1, 2023 Supervisor Bruce McPherson was quoted in a Sentinel article titled “Supervisors Bruce McPherson, Justin Cummings Seek CZU Rebuild Details” saying, “roughly one-third of impacted residents have not sought a rebuild permit after the CZU fires.” He goes on to say, “The county isn’t standing in the way, people just aren’t proceeding,” McPherson later told the Sentinel, “If there’s a reason 4Leaf or the county is standing in the way, well then I want to know about it.” He said he’s not pointing any fingers and that the county’s fire recovery has been done “comparatively well” to neighboring regions that have experienced similar disasters.”
Below are open letters to Bruce McPherson and county leadership in response to those statements. You will find messages from both fire survivors and people in the community who didn’t lose their homes but have been bearing witness to our struggles. It is worth noting that many fire survivors, especially those in the process of rebuilding, were too afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation from the county. Let that sink in. And others who wanted to speak up, but for their mental and emotional health just couldn’t. A fire sister who lost her home to fire here many years ago as well as in the 2020 CZU fires said, “It’s not the fire that breaks you, it’s the County.” Dealing with the county has been worse than losing everything in the fire.
Fire families who would like to contribute additional letters, please reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Broken Promises from the Very Beginning
When the county said they were going to help us, I believed them. I believed them when they told us they wouldn’t treat us like new builds. I believed them when they said they would remove the obstacles and create a fast track for us to get permits.
None of it was true. The county has been our biggest obstacle BY FAR in our efforts to return home.
Broken promises from the very beginning. They required an extensive study for us right away, which was completely unnecessary and ended up adding to our costs. Breaking the promise of not treating us as new builds, but rather rebuilds, they instead made us adhere to the new-build code, which made it impossible to build in-kind for a reasonable price. At every step, we have encountered red tape and cost overruns. It’s absolutely unconscionable.
The folks that we have worked with in the county, and basically FOUGHT with, start with No, and seemingly do everything they can to find a No when we all need Yes. They find silly, absurdist reasons to prevent folks from occupying rebuilt properties. They require geological surveys and studies that are near completely unnecessary; if folks were given a permit to build in a location when their house was created, they should be allowed to rebuild that same or a similar structure. This was a natural disaster, a fire in a forest. None of these geological requirements would save the next building from a fire. The idea that they are doing this for safety is either disingenuous or just poorly thought out. If you aren’t going to tear down the thousands of buildings that were built before the over-zealous current code, you shouldn’t force people rebuilding after a fire to build to that code. If it isn’t too risky for folks to live in now, all you’re doing is putting bureaucracy before citizens.
In theory, the county government and its employees are supposed to be here to help us. In reality, they are driving families into destitution and homelessness. I’m not sure how they sleep at night.
Why Many are Giving Up
To the Board of Supervisors.
This is in response to a recent article in the Sentinel in which Supervisor Bruce McPherson said “the county’s fire recovery has been going comparatively well” and that “the county isn’t standing in the way.” Supervisor McPherson said he wanted to know about it if the County was standing in the way so I hope he is going to listen.
I am a local real estate agent and have several friends, clients, and family members that have been affected by the CZU 2020 fires. What I have seen them go through is disheartening and shameful and so very sad to observe.
Although the concept of a streamlined process was very hopeful and positive, if we are being honest our County building departments aren’t known for streamlined service or quick responses. Maybe a few were able to fit into that streamlined process but most are still fighting to rebuild and have had many roadblocks and are still struggling.
From my perspective and what I have witnessed:
The pre-clearance and 4Leaf seemed like an organized system but it was not an easy process. It’s fairly technical and detailed and without having some knowledge can be overwhelming. Further complications and complaints – Once the “pre-clearance” was accomplished, County departments would change or not issue approvals of what had already previously been “cleared.” I have heard that the wait time to get answers from the different departments can take weeks or months causing more delays. I understand there are still some folks just struggling just to get through that “preclearance “process.
The length of time it took for the County’s geological Atkins Study – over 1 year – hurt more than helped. In that time supplies and contractors’ pricing skyrocketed and the overall cost to rebuild did as well.
More issues that I have heard repeatedly – The solar and sprinkler requirements added additional costs. The Governor could have signed off on solar requirements for homes in fire recovery areas but he chose not to. I think this is a great concept for new buildings but these are supposed to be rebuilds of like kind.
PG&E seems to be having difficulty supporting all of this as well. In regards to solar and power causing delays – power poles and meters are taking a very long time. But, the County’s involvement as far as issuing the permits which are required for that solar and power is not optimal.
AND the Big Basin Water issue. Apparently SLV Water and Big Basin Water have stopped negotiations. What now? Do you know that there are homes that survived the fire in the CZU burn areas and are still without Big Basin Water?
Another reason for not rebuilding – according to our local MLS sales reporting system there have been at least 175 estimated burn lots sold since September 2020 with probably more unreported. Many more are currently listed for sale. Fire survivors are giving up every day, and sadly we are now seeing foreclosed lots. Some lot owners are filing bankruptcy to try to stay the course to rebuild and not lose their land.
I have tried to help as these local families have struggled with temporary housing. Rental prices have climbed and inventory is in short supply. All the while they are paying their mortgage and fighting to rebuild to get home. We have lost essential housing with 911 homes lost. I have seen how this has taken a toll on fire survivors’ mental and physical health.
Certainly you can use your power to dig deeper, make inquiries, and push harder for solutions. Problem-solving caseworkers and oversight, easing of the red tape, and making exceptions and provisional permits could and should happen. Most importantly, ask the “Rebuild Community” what they need and listen to them. I truly believe our County and leaders can do a better job to support these community members.
Sincerely and very hopeful you will hear this, Chris Clayton
We Have Been, and Still Are, Absolutely Delayed by the County
This letter is for the County Board of Supervisors in rebuttal to Supervisor McPherson’s statement in the Sentinel that fire victims are not delayed by the county. I am here to tell you we have been, and still are, absolutely delayed by the county. I am a CZU fire survivor who lost my home in August 2020.
I am currently one geology letter away from being able to finally apply for my building permit. This is a letter that the county planning department is requiring; a letter that is causing me further delays, and is absolutely unnecessary since there is no risk of debris flow on my property. I cannot control when my geotech will finish this letter so we can apply for our building permit, so we are stuck again waiting for something unnecessary that the county is requiring, just to get back home. So, when Mr. McPherson says that it is not the county’s fault, that they are not causing the delay for fire victims, he is absolutely wrong.
The Santa Cruz county planning department and 4Leaf have set up hoop, after hoop, after hoop, after hoop for us to jump through to rebuild. They said they would make it easy. But instead they’ve made it harder than getting your doctorate degree. Why? They could have just passed people applying for their building permit, letting them put their house back where it was. Instead they put each one of us under a microscope. A microscope that is turned up to higher power than microscopes turned onto some of the world’s dirtiest polluters. And why? Because we want to go back home after a fire destroyed our lives?? Are we gross polluters? Because somehow the land has been changed so dramatically that a major study of the geology of the land had to be done before we could go back home?? The short answer is no. We are none of those things. The county did not have to scrutinize every single parcel the way that they have done. They should be ashamed of themselves and they should be held accountable for all of the turmoil that they have put all of my fire families through.
It has been more than two and a half years since the CZU Fire took our home, but here we are still not able to apply for a building permit! Mr. McPherson would have you believe that it’s of my own doing, that I had obstacles to overcome outside of the county. But I am here to tell you that that is not true. I probably would be back in our house by now if it weren’t for the planning department and the Atkins report that they did on the debris flow that I begged them not to do, and the Environmental Health Department.
The first major delay was commissioning the Atkins Study. That study took 8 months to complete and 2 months to review, causing a 10-month delay in pre-permitting. During that time, prices have gone up and professionals have become busy. Professionals like my structural engineer became unavailable. We waited and waited and waited for the pre-clearance before doing the structural engineering and then when they were finally done, my structural engineer was over his head in work and then unable to work, leaving me high and dry having to start and search for someone who could finish my design. It took months to do that but had I had my preclearance when I should have I’d probably be living in my house right now.
Many building businesses that weren’t busy at the time, became full after almost a year delay completing this unnecessary study. Unnecessary because it should only matter to the people who are going to live there who accept all the risk associated with living in the forest. Unnecessary because just because a fire went through an area it doesn’t completely change the whole geology of the entire area! And in the end when they were done with the report, they put my neighborhood in an uncertain category. Really? Are you not a geologist? You’re just going to not make a determination after making us wait 10 months? Well, two storms later, I can assure you that there is no debris flow risk to the properties that have burned down on my street, only to the ones that have not burned down that are very close to the creek. Even an amateur geologist like me could tell you that looking at the distance of the creek below our home spot and the width of the channel.
And what is more infuriating is that the County is refusing to send the Atkins group back to our Creek to add an addendum to their report to show the actual events that have occurred and updated to show the accurate risk level. Why is this? That’s what science does: they take the new information and incorporate it into what they already know, but I guess this is just too much trouble for the county. They don’t have to have letters attached to their deed unnecessarily so why should they care? But yet, the homes that did not burn down and that are at real risk don’t have to have any addendums onto their properties. How does this make sense?
Once my house is built, I will be going after this fight. Mark my words. Not only that, but the Environmental Health Department also dug back into my home’s history. I hadn’t even
anticipated having a problem with them, but their records showed a septic system only enough for a two-bedroom home, but my family lived in a 3 bedroom home for almost 2 years before it burned down and we never had any septic problems. It turned out, the 3rd bedroom in our home wasn’t permitted. So even though they know and have told us that we can go back to an unpermitted third bedroom, I had to have my plans and engineering reworked to show only a two-bedroom plan submitted, and then we would be able to go back and put in the wall separating the bedrooms after the final approval. They know that the home is going to be three bedrooms, but they’re making me go through this hoop and pay for periodic testing of a system THAT HAS NO PROBLEMS. I only agreed to it and signed all of their documents because I just want to get home and this was the fastest way to do it. I know that no pollution was entering the environment from our home because I checked the health of the stream behind our house.
But in the end, this has recently caused me another two weeks of waiting this month for my house plans to be reworked into the fake ones that the Environmental Health Department wants. And now maybe my geotech is busy and doesn’t have time to update that letter right away. More delays….. That whole process working with Environmental Health amounted to at least 6 months of delays before they could even properly explain to me why they were not issuing the pre-clearance. I had to push and push and threaten to sue to get them to explain everything clearly to me, and then to finally get pre-clearance, 2 years after the fire. 2 years.
In closing, I want everyone to know of the hardship that the county has imposed on fire victims unnecessarily, from creating reports that nobody needed, to microscoping everybody’s property to look for any little thing that might be wrong and asking people to fix it. For G-d’s sake, we just want to rebuild our home the way it was or better and go back home! Those in charge should be charged and sentenced for their callous actions against the innocent fire victims, and every pre-clearance should be issued immediately and any and all building permits that are received should receive a stamp of approval the second it is received so that we can all go back home. So, Mr. McPherson, I think you need to retract your statement and make a new one.
Sincerely, Ann Black
The County Does Not Want Us to Rebuild
After losing our home and everything my family had in the CZU fire, dealing with the county has been a nightmare, specifically the geology department. I don’t understand why 4Leaf was brought in to help out the fire victims when the geology department still won’t loosen their grip. We have submitted at least 5 geology reports, all stating how we can safely build, but they were denied over and over again. More and more testing was required until we finally got one approved, almost exactly 2 years after our house burnt to the ground. It took a year and a half of investigation, two separate geology firms, hiring a lawyer, and around $30,000 to finally get a report that would appease the county’s geologist.
Since we finally passed all three pre-clearances, we have been attempting to sign on with a civil engineer to design this insane retaining wall that we will be required to do before we can rebuild our home. We have been told that the report that the county approved does not make sense and contradicts itself. We are being told that our entire report needs to be rewritten so that it makes sense in order for anyone to be able to use the information in it to design our retaining wall and our home. No one will even give us a quote because they don’t feel comfortable using the report that finally got us past our geology clearance. How was our passing report good enough for the county, but not good enough to use for anything else?
While attempting to get the report to a point where we can actually use it, we got hit with the recent storms. These storms caused a water main to break a total of 4 times on a road that runs up the mountain behind our property. When the county geology department came out to inspect the damage, things got crazy.
My husband was helping a neighbor when he noticed someone trespassing on our property and went to confront who was on our property. It was a county geologist. He immediately became aggressive toward my husband, saying that our geology report was no longer valid and that if he had any issues with that to go ahead and contact our attorney. He said this with no actual investigation being done other than they visualized some cracks in the ground and no signs of a landslide on our property, but apparently he can just come onto our property and deem it unbuildable because the ground slightly moved somewhere in the area. The county geologist was storming around that day, telling fire survivors that our properties would be red-tagged and that we can no longer build, causing a panic.
He suggested installing costly meters into the hill above our property to monitor the hill, but he’s suggesting we do this on someone else’s property. This is not the first time he has told us to do investigation on a property that is not ours. We have contacted our geologist and the only solution they have for us is to start from scratch and do new borings and write a whole new report, at our cost even though they seem to agree with us that nothing on our lot has changed. We can’t afford to keep dumping money into this lost cause. The county does not want us to build and are forcing us to spend more and more money with no offer of any solution other than file a claim with FEMA that could take 3 to 5 years before anything happens. We do not have 3 to 5 years to wait and there’s no way of knowing if we would actually get anything out of them.
We feel county representatives are out of line and taking positions to draconian levels to hurt people who are already hurting so much. Those actions are unacceptable and need to be stopped. I would like to see anywhere, in anything that we have signed with the county, where it says that a county representative can just come say that our thorough geology report is no longer valid. Since losing our home and everything that we have worked so hard for, the worst part is the harassment we have received from the county employees. They keep saying they want to help find a solution, but never actually follow through. It’s almost as if the county geologist was looking for an excuse to tell us that our lot is unbuildable because he doesn’t like to be proved wrong. It feels like an “I told you so” attitude, but instead of offering a solution at the beginning, he sent us on a wild goose chase, causing extra financial stress. My husband is a disabled veteran and he says that he has never felt so disrespected by a government entity as he has by the Santa Cruz County Geology department.
Out of 911 Homes, Only 24 Have Been Rebuilt
As a precaution, my family was evacuated during the CZU fire. We were not affected by the fire other than the pain we have felt watching our neighbors in the San Lorenzo Valley struggle valiantly to rebuild.
In the beginning, they were helped, and there was hope. They were given the amount the insurance company was going to pay them to rebuild. Most of them looked at the number and thought it would be tough, but they could trim costs here and there and make it work. Then they were asked to do debris flow studies. There were limited numbers of people qualified to do the studies which slowed everything down. These expensive studies were not included in the money the insurance company was offering them. Now most of our neighbors realized they were going to really have to trim costs in order to rebuild.
While they waited to get their debris flow studies done, the price of lumber skyrocketed. So did everything else. That original number the insurance company gave them was now much lower than what was needed to rebuild. They also faced the same delays everyone faced while the supply chain slowed.
To say that the people who lost their homes are dragging their feet is a terrible accusation to make. My neighbors have been struggling, fighting, and advocating for themselves for years now. Out of the 911 homes lost only 24 have been rebuilt.
The delays have cost them more than money. It caused them emotional distress beyond measure. After losing everything, they have been facing obstacle after obstacle. The insurance companies did everything possible to delay payments, to deny them what was rightfully theirs, and then the obstacles with the planning department and the new rules, including the debris flow study, the requirement that roads be wide enough and other obstacles that were put in their way caused further delays.
Please don’t for a moment think that these people who have lost their homes are doing anything other than struggling their best to rebuild. To publicly claim anything else is a disservice to their resilience and hard-fought efforts.
Nothing but Obstacles from the County
Dear Supervisor McPherson
My name is Julie Lucia. My family is one of the 911 homes that was lost in the CZU fire. We are back home on our land, in our newly built home, but this wasn’t without a fight. I have to admit that your words struck a nerve. “The county isn’t standing in the way. People just aren’t proceeding.” I can tell you that this wasn’t my experience and is not what I hear from so many other fire victims. I attended multiple board meetings and spoke directly to you. You heard all the pleas from myself and my neighbors to make this process easier and to help us get back home.
The biggest obstacle for us was the geology department. The county put up a huge wall in front of fire victims by telling us that we could not proceed due to the risk of debris flow. What happened to “being there for fire victims” and a “streamlined process?” Not to mention, “will not be treated as new builds”?! I had to wait months for the completion of the Atkins study only to be told what I already knew, which was that my home was not in any threat of a debris flow. These were months that went by where the cost of materials only went up. I had to go back and forth with our insurance company proving to them that it wasn’t us that was stalling the process. It wasn’t us that was causing the delay. It was the county.
Fire Sprinklers, Big Basin Water, solar requirements, the list goes on and on to include auto lights, and even shower curtains. The 4Leaf inspectors becoming more and more nitpicky and downright rude to homeowners. Is this what we deserve after losing everything? Is this what we deserve for just wanting to put a roof over our family’s head?!
It seems like almost daily I hear about another fire victim that is forced out of rebuilding because the county is enforcing strict requirements for foundations and retaining walls. Costs that are increasing builds by hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is money that people simply do not have. Instead of being an adversary, it was all of our hopes that the county would be in our corner, looking for solutions and ways to support and rebuild the community, instead of standing in our way.
You asked if the county or 4Leaf is standing in the way then you’d like to hear about it. I hope others come forward to tell you their stories because there are hundreds. Literally hundreds!
Fire Survivors Should NOT Have to Fight Every Step of the Way to Rebuild Their Homes
“The county isn’t standing in the way, people just aren’t proceeding,” Bruce McPherson said recently. Going on to say that he’s not pointing any fingers and that the county’s fire recovery has been done “comparatively well” to neighboring regions that have experienced similar disasters.” I read these words and could feel the punch to the gut this must have been to hear for those who have spent the last 900 days of their lives focused on little else but the goal of rebuilding their home. 24 homes out of 911 is not a good score by any book and if this is considered “comparatively well” then anyone in leadership should have the determination to raise the bar.
I have worked part-time in International disaster relief for 15 years and lived and worked in Sonoma County after their devastating fires. The fire relief and recovery in Santa Cruz County was lacking so deeply that I had to pull myself out of “retirement from community advocacy and relief” and have dedicated the last two years of my life to catching those who have slipped through the cracks. I can tell you that there are far too many people slipping through the cracks. We are losing valued members of our community, people are exhausted, and it’s a miracle that this hasn’t become a greater mental health crisis.
This community has been dragged through the ashes of the very homes they have lost. It was the biggest tragedy we have seen in these mountains in decades and there is nothing that can bring their homes back – but the County and elected officials need to ensure that there are not a dozen obstacles placed every few steps along an unclear road to recovery.
I wish I could bring Bruce McPherson, Jimmy Panetta, CalOES, Long Term Recovery Groups, Gail Pellerin, 4Leaf to a panel for a facilitated strategy session where they can listen to the voice of the community and learn how we can work together more effectively to make the road to rebuilding as successful and easeful as it can possibly be.
Those who lost everything they had in a fire and then found the grit and determination to begin again should not have to fight every step of the way for simply rebuilding their homes. We should be gathered around them finding all the ways we can make it easier. We should be cheering them on. We should be doing barn-raising events to help carry the weight. This community needs better representation and advocacy and our elected officials should be championing them home.
McPherson’s Statement Incorrect, Places Blame on the Victims
I did not lose my home in the CZU wildfire, but as a San Lorenzo Valley homeowner I have followed the recovery efforts of the fire families with grave concern. I was absolutely floored by Supervisor McPherson’s recent statement. “The county isn’t standing in the way, people just aren’t proceeding,” he told the Sentinel. Nothing could be farther from the truth. This attempt at revisionist history is factually incorrect, and worse, places blame on the victims.
I attended some of the Board of Supervisors meetings over the past two years dealing with the recovery process and saw for myself just how the County was responding to the rebuilding efforts. I listened to each of the many fire families as they stood up in front of the Board of Supervisors, detailing the ways in which the County was impeding their attempts to rebuild. I listened as they pleaded for help, begging to just be able to go home. I listened – didn’t Supervisor McPherson? I got up and spoke as a concerned community member who was seeing the County fail its citizens. Even when a particular challenge is eventually resolved, it is just one in an endless parade of hurtles the fire families continue to battle. One after the next, these roadblocks continue to delay recovery.
How can Supervisor McPherson claim he does not know of the ways in which the County and 4Leaf have impeded rebuilding efforts? He and the Board have been told time and again of the problems. In the recent article, Supervisor McPherson was also quoted as saying, “If there’s a reason 4Leaf or the county is standing in the way, well then I want to know about it.” I respectfully suggest that reviewing the recordings of past Board of Supervisors meetings and the related public comments submitted to the record would be a good place to start.
Sincerely, Alison Breeze
McPherson Knows What’s Keeping Families from Rebuilding
When I saw that article it just gutted me! You know what’s keeping us from rebuilding. You know it’s your fault. And now you are all pretending that you’ve been just fine and dandy.
In a nutshell: I had a contract with a builder to rebuild my residence for just under $400,000. Then the Atkins study happened and suddenly the bid went up another $307,000 for a total of almost $700,000.
County Has Been a Hindrance
Letter responding to Bruce McPherson’s comments on CZU fire rebuild progress.
“The county isn’t standing in the way, people just aren’t proceeding,” Bruce McPherson said recently. Continuing to say he is not pointing any fingers and that the county’s fire recovery has been going well in comparison to neighboring regions that have experienced similar disasters. I wanted to cry at these statements, thinking how hard this must have been to hear for those who have spent the last 3 years focused on solely the rebuild of their home. 24/911 homes built is not a good score by any measurement. I know several families closely and personally. I’ve seen and heard firsthand how the county has promised one thing and pulled back when the time came. From promises that issues from a destroyed sewer infrastructure wouldn’t hinder a family to move into a structure building permits were granted to, then when the time came they were told they couldn’t move in due to those issues, from people signing marks on their titles to be cut off from final inspection after a rainy storm, to no flexibility on water sprinkler systems in rebuilds in areas reliant on Big Basin water….
The county had absolutely been a hindrance. They are not focused on assisting people back home and instead ride with any excuse to deny progression. It’s been disheartening as a lifelong community member to witness.
Sincerely, Gretchen McNelis
CZU Survivors Getting Home Should be Considered “Important Enough”
Do you remember in 2007, when that fuel tanker truck crashed and burned on the MacArthur Maze in Oakland, causing parts of the freeway to collapse, and shutting down two critical connector ramps that carried a combined total of 65,000 cars per day?
It was fixed in 26 days. Less than a month.
Do you remember ten years later, in 2017, when a 200+ foot section of Highway 35 slid off into oblivion, leaving a literal canyon where a road used to be?
It was rebuilt in just under a year, less than half the amount of time such a project would normally have taken. Crews started moving dirt even before the engineering plans were finalized.
Both of these projects were “fast-tracked”, meaning the gargantuan amount of red tape and corresponding bureaucratic lethargy that normally clogs any official construction project like so much hair in the drain was shaved down to virtually nothing.
And in the end, everything was still built safely and correctly.
So don’t tell me it’s not possible to bypass the bureaucracy, because it clearly is … when it’s important enough.
Seems like CZU survivors getting to go home should be considered “important enough”.
Dan Delong, retired Firefighter/Ben Lomond resident
CZU Fire Victims Have Been Let Down by the County
When I read Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson’s statement in the Feb 1st Sentinel article I was stunned: “The county isn’t standing in the way, people just aren’t proceeding,” McPherson later told the Sentinel. “If there’s a reason 4Leaf or the county is standing in the way, well then I want to know about it.” I thought of the countless CZU fire victims reading this article. I thought of the never-ending struggles, the agonizing journey they have collectively embarked on, and I have bore witness to, over the last two and a half years.
I also thought of the couple (County of Santa Cruz) Board of Supervisors meetings I attended in September 2021, where the room was packed with CZU fire victims. They each voiced the issues they faced while attempting to rebuild their houses. In one of those meetings, I spoke too, begging the County to please help our neighbors rebuild. I honestly cannot begin to wrap my head around how it must have felt to CZU fire victims, after all this time, after everything they have endured, after everything they have voiced, to read these words.
As I tried to explain at one of those September 2021 Board of Supervisor meetings: Boulder Creek is a small tight-knit community. The CZU fire has greatly impacted everybody. Every single one of those of us lucky enough to still have a house knows at least one family, if not several families, who lost their homes to that awful fire. Many moved away. We need the ones staying to rebuild. These are our beloved friends, local business owners, and neighbors. Therefore, most of us are painfully aware of the degree to which CZU fire victims have been let down by every level of government, from County to State. Moreover, we are painfully aware that if anything happens to our own homes we will be in the same boat.
We are aware of the exorbitant sums spent on permits, the never-ending nightmare of dealing with the Planning Department, the extraordinary delays in responses that have led to material price increases and waste of precious time allowed by insurance, and the plethora of unreasonable or at times impossible requirements added along the way. Even Gavin Newsom refused to grant an exception to fire victims for a requirement to install solar power panels on rebuilds, in spite of many of us begging him to grant this exception! Is this really about fighting Global Warming? Or just part of a larger pattern of complete indifference to the practical, financial, and emotional burdens endlessly being placed on the shoulders of CZU fire victims who have already been through way too much?
We have clearly not been represented by our own elected officials. I will take this opportunity to beg the County yet again: PLEASE HELP OUR NEIGHBORS REBUILD! As someone who has previously worked in the world-renowned Silicon Valley high-tech area, may I suggest a group being formed specifically to address these issues. A dedicated group that meets on a weekly basis, composed of key players (County, State, Fire Victims, non-profits, etc), with a program manager devoted to tracking action items. When action items are not addressed within an acceptable time frame, they get to be escalated. Anything short of this model will likely just keep giving continuity to this vicious cycle of critical issues being lost in the great void of bureaucratic government. And perhaps someone again asking why our neighbors are not rebuilding, to our collective exasperation.
The County HAS Stood in the Way
“The county isn’t standing in the way, people just aren’t proceeding,” McPherson told the Sentinel. “If there’s a reason 4Leaf or the county is standing in the way, well then I want to know about it.” He said he’s not pointing any fingers and that the county’s fire recovery has been done “comparatively well” to neighboring regions that have experienced similar disasters.”
I’ve heard this a few times Supervisor McPherson. That you “want to hear about it” when it comes to toxic county culture and hurdles the county is putting in front of rebuild efforts.
Except you HAVE heard our concerns. You’ve heard our pleas for help. I’ve been in your office. I’ve been in the chamber during board meetings. I’ve sent emails. I’ve written articles. I have been in countless zoom meetings.
The county HAS stood in the way. The county HAS forced many fire families into making that hard decision to walk away…The county could have done so much better. The county could have started with yes, then move onto the path of figuring out the how. Instead, with pretty words, we were told what we wanted to hear and what made the county look good, while not actually creating that path of ease and support and instead aggressively fighting to protect a system that serves the county but does not serve its constituents.
And since you are asking for clarity around how the county and 4 Leaf have potentially obstructed my fire community’s efforts to recover from the CZU, I will relay my own rebuilding issues that I place squarely at the foot of the county.
We had to fight for a year to simply pass pre-clearance, and it almost broke me. Geology department representatives seemed to be committed to preventing us from moving forward. One staff geologist demanded we do an advanced geo study that wasn’t even on our land that would have cost a fortune, not even taking into consideration the grossly over-engineered retaining wall he would then have demanded. We fought back, and we were successful but so many other people have not been. If you want to know why people aren’t getting anywhere, the notorious planning department is the first place you should look.
And then to learn the county has given employee recognition awards for the very work that obstructed so many of us. That was a slap in the face. County reps have delayed many of us for literal years, costs skyrocketing by tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. This shows the complete lack of awareness the county has, unless obstruction is exactly what the county leadership had in mind.
The county halted my project for the better part of a year for the Atkins study, telling my soils engineer it was required for their report and recommendations. By the time we were able to finally move forward, our bid had ballooned from $807k to $1.085 million. The county had insisted the study would save money for fire victims, however, it caused greater harm to so many. I know an entire neighborhood that can’t move forward, a sea of trailers and tents and tarps line the streets where houses once stood. All because of that study. Even though houses were once there and debris flow risk decreases over time.
Additionally, the inspectors on our projects need to be replaced. They are downright abusing their powers and being nit-picky and rude during what continues to be the most stressful time of our lives. Denying finals for shower curtains, showing up at job sites just to giddily tell contractors the project is going to fail inspection. When I told a contractor all the things I have been told by fire victims about two specific inspectors he was downright angry. Of all the times to be flexible with builders, it should be for us: fire victims.
There is a reason only 24 homes have been rebuilt, and it is not because we don’t want to. Supervisor McPherson, all any of us have ever wanted to do was to go home. But the roadblocks, delays, and adversarial nature of the departments on your watch have made it impossible for so many. Every time I see another fire family give up and leave after spending close to $100K to move forward, my heart breaks just a little more. And 9 times out of 10 it has something to do with the county. Geology is still a huge problem for so many. Environmental health has been impossible.
But again, you know this. Because we have told you.
And as far as others who have not engaged at all with the county since the debris clean up I will tell you this. Many knew how adversarial the county would actually be and never attempted to rebuild because they knew it would be an impossible task. Others have been waiting for the county to improve their recovery efforts before even starting, not wanting to deal with what some of us have gone through. And there are those who simply don’t have the money to rebuild at all and the process so far has bankrupted them. These people have fallen through the cracks and it’s heartbreaking to watch.
I urge you to move forward with your words in honesty. The narrative of the county and the real-life experiences of the people you are meant to serve are very often two different things. How can things get better for your constituents if you aren’t truthfully analyzing the serious issues affecting us at the hands of the county?
The care our fire community receives is truly your legacy, and none of us in SLV will forget our experiences with you as our elected official.
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 as well. She is committed to making contributions to the San Lorenzo Valley community wherever and however she can.
Photos by Christopher Bradford