Left out to dry: Sprinkler requirements the next hurdle for beleaguered CZU rebuilders

Julie Lucia broke ground in February
Julie Lucia broke ground in February, following monthslong back-and-forth with both the county and insurance to ensure funding. Now her family is contending with another issue: lack of water for the required fire sprinklers.
(Via Julie Lucia)

As more families in the Santa Cruz Mountains begin the rebuilding process nearly two years after losing their homes in the CZU Lightning Complex fire, another issue has become evident: a fire sprinkler requirement, and a lack of adequate water pressure for all affected families. Some say this could hinder their ability to get home more so than before: “What can I do, just move in and face possible red-tagging?”

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Julie Lucia has faced a number of challenges in rebuilding her family’s home in the Fallen Leaf neighborhood of Boulder Creek since losing the home in the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires: building delays, challenges with pre-clearance approval, and complications with her family’s insurance company.

The latest unexpected issue: the required fire sprinkler installation, exacerbated by the lack of adequate water pressure to meet that requirement.

“It’s extremely disheartening, especially the fact that so many of us are up against insurance timelines as we are,” she said, noting that her insurance company has set a December deadline.

Lucia and her family face this new challenge as they deal with the concerns surrounding fire sprinklers.

The requirement to include sprinklers in all new builds goes back to 1989; Santa Cruz County first adopted it following the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 2019, the state of California updated the code, further requiring all new housing developments to further have a water pressure of 500 gallons per minute for 30 minutes. Santa Cruz County then reduced the county’s requirement to 500 gallons per 20 minutes.

Fire sprinklers themselves add only a few thousand dollars to costs, but it is the added question of available water that could lead to a much heftier price tag for rebuilding families than originally anticipated.

In the San Lorenzo Valley, these constraints of available water and adequate water pressure for sprinklers focus on two water companies, San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD) and Big Basin Water Company (BBWC). The CZU fire damaged both companies’ infrastructure— and that damage has still not been fully repaired, causing even more confusion as to what can be done to address the fire sprinkler requirements. Then there are the constraints of mountain development. Some rebuilds might have to establish wells on their properties, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, consultation and equipment.

Because of the damage to both water companies, rebuilding residents have been told that their properties won’t have the necessary water for the sprinkler systems, leading some feeling left out to dry. While Lucia’s is one of the 10-12 families who have come across the issue so far, she believes many more will soon contend with the issue, possibly creating a much larger problem.

“We’re up against another roadblock, and we’re doing everything we can to figure it out … a lot of this is out of our control,” Lucia said.

Progress and frustrations so far

This newer constraint on rebuilding comes as rebuilding is starting to show bigger gains.

By Lookout’s most recent April report, rebuilding efforts were just beginning to break ground, with 127 single family dwelling units having permits and an additional 119 properties receiving all three “pre-clearances.” As of June 8, Santa Cruz County reported 160 single family homes units with permits and 143 properties with all three pre-clearances.

The number of rebuilds now underway — 160 — amounts to 17.6% of the total properties lost in the CZU fire in August 2020. Families believe the issues surrounding underinsured properties, supply chain concerns and lack of streamlining have caused the slow movement forward — only to then be faced with the sprinkler ordinance.

“This is basically the next choke point, right — we could do all of the code requirement to put plumbing in our rebuild homes to satisfy our end,” said Antonia Bradford, a Boulder Creek resident who has been vocal about the rebuilding challenges her family and neighbors have faced. “But if, when final inspection happens and the tested water pressure doesn’t adequately work with these fire sprinkler systems, you don’t pass final inspections, theoretically, it would be illegal for the families to occupy their rebuilt homes.”

Bradford runs the Facebook group “CZU Fire Families Rebuild: Action Now!,” with 1,468 members including fire survivors, advocates and neighboring Santa Cruzans. In numerous posts, group members shared their distaste with explanations about sprinklers and water pressure from fire and county officials during a virtual May meeting. Bradford and others say officials evaded audience questions.

“This is basically putting the burden on fire victims when it’s the water companies that are falling short,” she said.

Official feedback

During that virtual May 23 meeting, county and fire officials— including Dave Reid, director of the Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience — said that enforcement of the fire sprinkler ordinance is a necessity, even if it means unexpected additional costs for fire families. Ultimately, Reid and other officials said, the goal is to keep San Lorenzo Valley residents safe, especially as fire season extends throughout the year — but there are no immediate actions that could ease the current concerns.

The county’s Fire Prevention Officers Association has “worked tirelessly” to reduce requirements where it can, said Santa Cruz County Deputy Fire Marshal Chris Walters. Still, Walters said, even rebuilds — though not classified as new builds — in wildfire areas must comply with the state fire provisions.

A Cal Fire crew member works on fuel reduction in the burn scar of the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
A Cal Fire crew member works on fuel reduction in the burn scar of the CZU Lightning Complex fire. Residents can do the same on their property to lower the risk of home ignition.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

As California State Guard Fire Safety Inspector Jim Dias emphasized during the meeting, the sprinklers are meant to protect life, not property, and should be looked at from that perspective: “I understand that there’s a cost involved and some consider this expensive, but if you look at the grand scheme of things, this isn’t expensive.”

Yet he also doesn’t downplay the challenges fire survivors are facing with the damaged water districts, and how that issue has played out thus far.

“How do we get you the fire protection to be able to get a sprinkler system that helps you down the line, and still meet the requirements of the code,” Dias asked.

Reid said that 97% of fire clearances in the rebuilding process have been issued without further followup on water supply or water pressure — it’s the remaining rural community that has hit this hurdle.

The water companies themselves face their own issues.

The SLVWD aims to consolidate two smaller water districts, Forest Springs and Bracken Brae, with state grant funding, and to focus on system repairs and upgrades. But it’s Big Basin Water Company that has additional complexities, which make the process more complicated and time consuming.

Reid says he understands the concerns surrounding the disconnect between fire families and the water districts: “Residents expect the municipal water system to meet their needs, and it’s not meeting their needs, which is adding to their frustration over the building process in general.”

Mark Bingham has been working round the clock to address residents’ concerns, answering questions up to 12 hours per day.

The chief of the Boulder Creek Fire Protection District — and the only paid full-timer in his department — oversees an area that lost 430 homes during the CZU fire. He understands rebuilding families’ concerns regarding the sprinklers, and says that 50 to 75% of daily calls relate to sprinklers.

County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, whose district includes the affected area, said the decision is out of his hands.

“It really rests with the fire authorities … it’s their call what’s needed,” he said. “It’s all about safety in light of another possible fire disaster.”

Lucia took the officials’ statements as unhelpful, saying they dismissed the very real concerns fire families have as they approach insurance expirations and draining finances. She’s been in contact with Reid regarding her concerns, but said she hasn’t heard back on any progress from the water district. She feels as though the county has focused on defending the codes instead of protecting families and helping move the rebuilding process forward.

“I have to keep the data and records of everything that’s happening with the county, in order to prove that it’s not holding up this process,” she said.

Both Bradford and Lucia said the county needs to work fast and collaboratively with families, so that they are as in-the-know as possible surrounding the regulations, while also addressing the concerns over time frame and funding.

For Lucia, the clock is ticking, with concerns about what to do if her home does not pass fire inspection and her family runs out of insurance funding: “What can I do, just move in and face possible red-tagging?”

What the future looks like for rebuilds

Lucia said her situation and the concerns of other survivors just show what could become a much larger issue as rebuilding continues.

“We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, until Big Basin Water gets on board to upgrade or fix the problem on their end,” she said.

Lucia also questions whether the county could potentially take ownership of Big Basin Water, but doesn’t know how feasible it would be: “I feel like I’m in the dark, and that’s really frustrating.”

Reid didn’t speak to the potential for a county-run water district, but did say: “There are solutions to addressing deficient water pressure, and some community members are looking into some of those solutions … it’s a critical life safety piece.”

When asked to elaborate, Reid did not provide further explanation of those solutions.


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