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County May Ease Rebuilding Requirements For CZU Fire Survivors

Antonia Bradford stands on the brick foundation of the home she lost in the CZU Fires. A change to the county code proposed by county supervisors could help her and other fire survivors rebuild more quickly.
Jerimiah Oetting
Antonia Bradford stands on the brick foundation of the home she lost in the CZU Fires. A change to the county code proposed by county supervisors could help her and other fire survivors rebuild more quickly.

Over a year since the CZU fires devastated communities in the Santa Cruz Mountains, residents are still struggling to rebuild their homes. Many of the fire survivors say the county’s strict building codes have stymied their progress. Now, those rules could change.

A recent move by Santa Cruz county supervisors aims to ease requirements for one of the biggest hurdles facing many fire survivors: the geologic hazard assessment.

“That code has become a major obstacle in terms of time and money,” said Fifth District Supervisor Bruce McPherson at last week’s County Board of Supervisors meeting. “It’s not going very well for some (fire survivors).”

One of those survivors is Antonia Bradford, whose home was destroyed last summer. The charred redwood trees on her property tower over the brick foundation of her former home. A new home has yet to take its place.

Instead, she and her husband are constructing yurts to house their family as they work to obtain a building permit.

“None of this is good enough for us,” she said. “We're trying to make do and survive."

She isn’t alone. Roughly 911 homes were lost in the CZU fires. So far, the county has only approved 31 building permits for single-family homes, and two permits for accessory dwelling units, according to data provided by the county’s Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience (OR3). An additional nine permits are nearing approval.

To receive a building permit, home builders need three pre-clearances from the county — for environmental health, fire safety and geologic hazards. That third clearance is where Bradford’s rebuild plans have stalled.

Like many properties in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Bradford’s home was built on a historic debris flow — an area where geologists can tell that fast-moving landslides occurred in the past. That may have been hundreds, even thousands of years ago. But it means a debris flow is possible at some point in the future — a risk exacerbated by the recent fire. That potential risk triggers the county to require an advanced geologic report.

The first of two yurts Bradford's family is constructing as temporary housing while they work to obtain a building permit to replace their home.
Jerimiah Oetting
The first of two yurts Bradford's family is constructing as temporary housing while they work to obtain a building permit to replace their home.

The advanced report is an expensive and time consuming process, Bradford said. She had to hire a geological technician to describe all of the potential hazards on her property, from earthquakes, landslides and floods.

Bradford’s general contractor said mitigating all of those hazards could cost upwards of $25,000. County Geologist Jeff Nolan said that price isn't surprising. For some properties, the mitigations cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So far, over 260 fire survivors have requested their pre-clearances for their properties, and 15% needed an advanced geologic report. But Acting Planning Director Paia Levine said that number is likely to rise as people with more complicated properties attempt to rebuild their homes.

“We do think that this sample now skews toward the less complicated parcels,” Levine said. “I would expect that (15% number) to rise.”

Bradford said the rules need to change. She argues fire survivors should only have to mitigate for new hazards caused by the fires — not the risks that have always existed on the land. The current requirements are prohibitively time consuming and expensive.

“It's very frustrating, especially because we're exhausted. I'm personally exhausted,” Bradford said. “I just wish that they would find ways to alleviate some of the stressors that are being put on us.”

At an emotionally charged county supervisor’s meeting last week, Bradford and other fire survivors demanded the county ease up on the geology requirements. The board of supervisors unanimously agreed. County staff now need to find ways to adjust the building codes to make it easier to rebuild, and present those options at next month's Board of Supervisor's meeting.

“We want to try and thread that difficult needle between life safety and property safety...and their need both emotionally and financially to get back onto their property and into their homes,” said Dave Reid, a senior analyst at OR3.

But threading that needle may be easier said than done. Jeff Nolan, the Santa Cruz County geologist, said changing the county code raises complex legal questions.

“There's the California building code. There's a Santa Cruz County code,” he said. “You can't just wave your hand at it and dismiss it.”

He also argues the codes were created to keep people safe. Relaxing them comes with a risk.

“If three or four years down the road, somebody’s family gets washed down the San Lorenzo river because of a debris flow, there’s going to be some questions,” Nolan said. “Why weren't these people required to develop the site safely so they'd be protected?”

But an alternative is in the works — a way to keep people protected without burdening individual homeowners with the cost of mitigations.

A comprehensive debris flow study is underway in the Santa Cruz Mountains that will identify hazards across the landscape.

Nolan called it a first step towards “community scale mitigation projects.” The county can use data from the debris flow study to construct barriers and other mitigations that would protect entire neighborhoods from hazards, like debris flows.

“My thought from the beginning was to put some sort of structures protect the communities as a whole,” Nolan said. “That takes some of the onus off the owners.”

The debris flow study is slated for completion within the next month. Dave Reid at OR3 said he hopes to secure funding for community mitigations by the end of the year. Within 18 months, he hopes to begin constructing them.

That timeline is important, because Reid said the risk of debris flows is elevated in the winters following a fire. Before community mitigations are in place, some residents who waive the geologic requirements will likely need to evacuate during rainstorms to stay safe from debris flows.

“The peak risk is this coming winter and maybe the following winter,” he said. “And then it continues to decline each year” until it's back at pre-fire levels.

For homes built on historic debris flows, there is always a risk they will occur again. The community scale protections would add some peace of mind for residents who waive the geologic hazards requirement — an option Bradford hopes will be on the table in the near future.

“I'm cautiously optimistic,” she said. “This feels does. But I'm also a little jaded at this point, you know?”

The county planning department and OR3 are expected to bring some options to the board of supervisors no later than Sept. 14. Until then, fire survivors will continue to wait, unsure of what will happen next.

Jerimiah Oetting is KAZU’s news director. Prior to his career in public media, he was a field biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service.