One year after CZU wildfires devastated the Santa Cruz mountains, obstacles to reconstruction remain: “I can’t wait for years”


DAVENPORT, Santa Cruz County – When Sharon Smith examines the rolling fire-denuded hills of her community perched above Highway 1 all the way to the coast, she realizes how lucky she is to be in life.

She remembers the night a year ago when she was fleeing the fire at the CZU Lightning Complex, running from her home on a winding dirt road as the sky turned reddish orange and flames licked the trees. In 50 years of living in the woods, Smith and her husband, Steve, have fought many fires, but none like the one last year.

“It was unlike anything we had ever seen,” Smith said. “It was global climate change.”

Not everyone made it out. One of Smith’s neighbors died in the CZU blaze, among hundreds of fires set off statewide by a thunderstorm on August 15, 2020. These fires included the destructive LNU and SCU complexes, also in the region from the bay. The UNL, which burned down in parts of North Bay, burned nearly 1,500 structures and killed six people.

The CZU has consumed more than 86,500 acres and destroyed more than 900 homes, including up to 90 in the faint hope community above Davenport, according to Smith.

A year later, the survivors still struggle with trauma, frustration and grief, despite the solidarity and generosity. In an area that had not burned on this scale in recorded history, fierce fire blinded many, leading to evacuation orders too late for Last Chance. Officials grappling with worsening fire seasons and limited resources face a conundrum: They want communities to rebuild in a safer way, but face pressure from residents with limited time and resources desperate to go back home.

At the edge of his property, Smith can see the dead end of Last Chance Road on a hiking trail. This trail is where Tad Jones, a monk-like man who had taken a vow of silence, attempted to escape as hell engulfed the main exit on August 18. His bones were found near the stream that runs down to his property.

Despite the risks, many want to rebuild. Since last week, Santa Cruz County has issued or will soon approve 35 building permits. Many more are making their way through a clearance process complicated by the challenges of the mountain, including the risk of mudslide and the need to create new escape routes.

Some residents did not have fire insurance. Others who received payments too low to cover losses and reconstruction costs, officials said. Even those who can rebuild don’t know if they can get insurance, said supervisor Ryan Coonerty, who represents Last Chance.

The county set up a recovery center in December and waived 40% of the rebuilding permit fee, although survivors criticized this, noting Monterey County was waiving 100%. Coonerty said a fee is needed to pay an outside company to expedite permits for survivors of the fires.

The county said Chuck Teixeira was the first to get a permit, in February, six days after his application. He and his wife, Debbie, lost their mountain home north of Santa Cruz to the fire.

Teixeira embarked on the redesign of her new home a few weeks after the fire. He and Debbie are hoping to move in by Christmas, although it could take until March.

“It is a task charged with staying mentally sane and healing from tragedy,” he said. “I’m a pretty tough character and it’s pretty close to breaking my back.”

Teixeira, moved to tears by the generosity of friends and strangers over the past year, said the trauma is still alive and recovery is not yet within reach for many survivors.

“Our whole community has been devastated by this mad fire,” he said. “The people at CZU are not doing well.”

Other residents must assess the geology to apply for permits. Of 259 properties that applied for approval, 38 were scheduled to get an expensive private geological survey last week. In a meeting on August 10, the supervisory board approved the creation of a plan for survivors of a fire to rebuild without assessing and mitigating potential pre-fire risks.

After the vote, Boulder Creek resident Tracy Walker collapsed crying. Walker, a stay-at-home mom of two, and her self-employed husband have already invested $ 50,000 in private debris cleanup and geological survey, but have yet to secure a permit, she said. The family are staying in a rental in Scotts Valley and are asking their insurance company to extend temporary housing assistance beyond September.

“We are running out of money and time,” Walker told supervisors.

Other communities need better road access to get permits. The county launched a pilot rural building permit program in June for Last Chance, but Cal Fire wants the community to widen and pave parts of its private 7-mile dead end road and create an escape route before it lasts. approval of the permit.

The community wants to reopen a road that once led to the back, which Big Basin Redwoods State Park decommissioned as a hiking trail about 20 years ago, said Chris Spohrer, district superintendent of Santa Cruz, California. State Parks. Cal Fire San Mateo-Santa Cruz unit chief Ian Larkin told The Chronicle that restoring an old road as another escape route would be “a great alternative.” Spohrer said there was “no specific plan to create additional roads”.

Steve Smith said he and Sharon “asked for permission, but we feel like we’ve hit a block with Cal Fire.” The couple, their two daughters and their son-in-law have been living in separate caravans on the property since June. They plan to rebuild their home according to code, in the hopes that the county and state can find a solution to approve the permits.

“I can’t wait for years,” said Sharon. “I just need to get home.”

Residents, who are not naive about the continued fire risk, are concerned about late evacuations and Cal Fire’s limited capacity last year.

Larkin has repeatedly pointed out that his unit is under-resourced. The storm sparked 27 fires in San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties, and although most were quickly brought under control, the few that remained exploded.

“We didn’t expect this fire to burn with the method, ferocity, intensity and speed it did,” Larkin told community members at a virtual meeting in March. “Evacuations are going to have to be considered earlier and conducted much earlier.”

Larkin said more people have signed up for the Santa Cruz County alert system. The Sheriff’s Department has met with community volunteers who can help spread the word about a disaster and will appoint a liaison to monitor future fires in neighboring counties, spokeswoman Ashley Keehn said.

A Santa Cruz County Civilian Grand Jury report in June said residents are “understandably angry” about fire response, evacuation and preparedness, and criticized supervisors for “lack of leadership”. Coonerty said the county had applied for grants to reduce fire risk, but needed more federal and state resources.

Several residents said they felt lonely. Last Chance resident Gina Lund has created a resilience center in the cafe she runs in Soquel, Santa Cruz County, and conducts fire preparedness seminars.

“People don’t do anything until it’s too late,” said Lund, who soon returns to live in a trailer and tent-shaped dome with her husband and children on their burnt down property. “My big message is that it can happen to you.”

For many, the fire was a stark reminder of climate change.

“This is what the apocalypse looks like,” said Hannah Wilson-James, who, along with her grandparents, mother and partner, lost three uninsured homes off Highway 1 that her family owns. for 100 years. “It was never a question of whether we would leave or not. Now it’s coming back to that place that means everything to us and having to realize that it will never be more than a feeling of sheer security.

Other survivors have shared similar experiences of trauma, particularly in Last Chance.

Ruth Anne Frase, who fled the fire with a dog, leaving behind another dog, cats and goats, did not return because she said it would be too traumatic. It was the Smiths who buried his animals.

The Smiths mourn the loss on their property, where their daughters were born and Sharon’s mother died. Only fragments remain, including the wedding money from Sharon’s parents and the porcelain figurines of Steve’s grandmother depicting Christmas carols. Taking inventory with an insurance agent during a weekly hour-long phone call inevitably leaves Sharon in tears.

She is still stunned by how the evidence for half a century of her life has been shattered.

“In an instant, it’s gone,” she said.

Mallory Moench is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @mallorymoench

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