Property damaged by the CZU Complex fire
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz County’s new CZU dashboard shows fewer than 10% have been issued rebuilding permits

Last week, the county launched a CZU recovery dashboard, providing basic data about the rebuilding process. While county spokesperson Jason Hoppin said Santa Cruz’s progress is in line with other communities’ post-fire rebuilds, some survivors said the process remains overly burdensome.

More than 17 months after the CZU Lightning Complex fires cut through the Santa Cruz Mountains, destroying 911 homes, fewer than 10% have the permits to rebuild — something advocates say is frustrating and county officials say is inevitable.

On Friday, Santa Cruz County announced the launch of a new tool through the Office Response, Recovery and Resilience, called the “Recovery Permit Center Dashboard.” The dashboard showcases a map of the properties along with the stats on what has been cleared and permitted:

  • 108 properties have finished all three pre-clearances (i.e., fire access, environmental health-sewage disposal, and geologic hazard).
  • An additional 111 properties have finished the pre-clearance and are in the permit process.
  • And, of those, 82 permits have been issued or are ready for pickup for home rebuilds.
  • Additionally, 446 permits have been issued for non-dwelling units (e.g., garages and other outbuildings).

County spokesperson Jason Hoppin said the dashboard will help Santa Cruzans understand why the recovery process is so long and see how the county’s response compares to other fire-ravaged areas.

“There were 911 dwellings destroyed, but we have not heard from a number of those property owners,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to gauge what’s the denominator.”

Hoppin acknowledged the process can seem lengthy, but said the county’s geography makes building a challenge. He believes that is the reason why so many homeowners might still be assessing whether to rebuild or not, particularly with the issues of insurance claims, cost of labor and supply chain issues.

You can’t just snap your fingers and have a house on the side of a hill up in Bonny Doon.

“It takes time, it can’t be done overnight,” he said.”You can’t just snap your fingers and have a house on the side of a hill up in Bonny Doon.”

For Community Foundation CEO Susan True, the dashboard itself might deliver some information — but she said it shows how the lengthy rebuilding process is hampering the community.

The foundation launched the Fire Response Fund on Aug. 19, 2020, to address relief and long-term recovery efforts, giving more than $1.7 million to residents displaced by the fires. But, True said, rebuilding efforts have been stymied by excessive requirements and delays.

“We have to help people heal and rebuild their lives. We’re doing that case by case, one by one, helping people through this process,” she said. “But there are clearly broken parts of the process, and the overwhelm of all of this is real.”

Hallie Greene, district manager for Boulder Creek Recreation and Parks, began the pre-clearance process for her Boulder Creek property in November 2021. She also works as a local coordinator for nonprofit United Policyholders, and spent most of the prior year assisting other fire families with their insurance claims.

“I wasn’t emotionally or personally really in a place to make a decision [to rebuild] yet … I’ve been following and a part of the long-term recovery group since the beginning,” she said. “I don’t think the full picture of rebuilding in the long term was in place until this last summer — I think we’re finally really getting a bigger and better picture of what’s really entailed in the rebuild.”

Map showing the extent of the CZU Lightning complex fire compared to previous fires in the area.
Fire history map for the CZU Lightning Complex and surrounding area.
(Cal Fire and California Department of Conservation)

Greene made the difficult and costly choice to pay off her property’s mortgage last year to avoid paying a mortgage without her home intact. She is still at work on finishing her insurance claim for the rebuild, which means she isn’t certain how much money she will have to rebuild her home — and that’s just the start of the money question for rebuilds like hers.

“A lot of people are going to be running out of their assisted living expenses, if not at the end of this year, certainly the year after,” she said. “There’s a little bit more of a push — I think now people are making their choice. When you have a full-time job and other things going on, that’s really challenging for everyone to navigate.”

She further said that the vast differences for each property’s rebuild plan can be challenging for many fire survivors: “I’m only four months into my pre-clearance, and I’m kind of at the same point as some people who started a year ago.”

While the rebuilding timeline for each property is different, Hoppin said Santa Cruz is in line with other fire-ravaged communities and their processes. In December, the county had issued permits for 68 dwellings of 911 destroyed, a total of 7%; in comparison with Napa’s Glass fire in October 2020, that county had issued 34 permits for 666 destroyed dwellings in the same time frame, a total of 5%.

“We’re very interested in moving people on as quickly as possible,” Hoppin said, “but, again, there’s just processes that you need to go through.”

As Greene continues to dive into the rebuilding process, she feels as though the waiting game for herself and others will be reflected on the county’s dashboard: This isn’t just the county’s mistake, but the overall system.

“I’m not saying that there isn’t room for improvement, or that I would like to see certain things expedited,” she said. “But I also think part of it is just the systems that are in place right now and how it’s a long waiting experience outside of just the county and permits, just to get to work to get work done. ... I don’t see how it always translates to actually making a difference in the rebuild.”

How could residents rebuilding from the CZU fire share tools? The answer is the Community Tool Shed, which opens...