A tale of two recoveries: Rebuilding frustrates CZU families; officials say they’re ahead of the curve

Steve and Christine Homan's home in Bonny Doon — which the couple built in 1976 — was lost in the CZU fire.
(Via Steve Homan)

With building costs up 20-30% from pre-pandemic levels, red tape, updated building codes, construction price hyperinflation and the recurring nightmare of personal loss have combined to stymie efforts to get Santa Cruz County residents back into houses in areas devastated by the 2020 CZU blaze.

Nearly 19 months after the CZU Lightning Complex fires destroyed 911 homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains, only a small fraction of tangible rebuilding has begun.

According to the CZU Fire Recovery Permit Center dashboard — released to the public in February by Santa Cruz County’s Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience — only 127 single-family dwelling unit permits have been issued — 14% of the homes destroyed. An additional 119 properties have received all three of their pre-clearances but haven’t yet gotten an official permit that will allow them to break ground.

As many CZU families have expressed since the process began — both to their elected officials and to the media — constant delays and a push-pull with the county to get rebuilds even started have caused some to reassess whether they can afford to rebuild.

Squaring the soaring cost of materials combined with an uncertain timeline, dealing with the grief of losing everything while receiving difficult news from their insurance companies or county geologists — for many of those who lost everything in the CZU catastrophe, it’s simply been too much to bear.

Meanwhile, it’s become clear that counties aren’t set up to deal with such problems holistically, on a human level. While local leaders acknowledge the unfairness of the situation to the families involved, they say they must take a bottom-line approach: new buildings that will meet modern code and stand the test of time.

“We need to ensure that not only the property owner that is building the home, but all future homeowners of that property are living in a safe and secure home that meets current code standards,” said Dave Reid.

Reid — named the director of the newly formed Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience in September — told Lookout that Santa Cruz County understands the community frustration but is holding its rebuilding work up against others, such as Napa County, which endured the Glass fire in September 2020, and Placerville, which saw the Caldor fire in August 2021. And that tells local officials that they’re doing a good job.

Dave Reid, director of the Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience
Dave Reid, director of Santa Cruz County’s Office of Response, Recovery & Resilience.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’s never fast enough,” Reid said. “But we’re a little bit ahead of the curve, even in a more technically complex place to build.”

According to data from Napa County, 666 homes were destroyed in the 2020 Glass fire, and the county has since issued 49 permits for rebuilding efforts — approximately 7%.

“Fire rebuilding has gone very slow, even from [the 2017 Tubbs fire],” David Morrison, Napa County’s director of Planning, Building & Environmental Services, told Lookout. “I’m not expecting most of those units to be rebuilt anytime soon.”

Carla Hass, El Dorado County director of communications and outreach, was unavailable for comment, but the county’s Caldor Fire Recovery office offers fire survivors a dashboard similar to Santa Cruz’s, displaying the steps in the debris removal and pre-clearance process toward rebuilding.

As of publication, the El Dorado County dashboard showed 765 right-of-entry approvals through the county office and 24 approvals through private contractors. It is unclear how many of those homes have broken ground on new construction.

A similar question hangs in the air in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Reid said his office has seen traction in the San Lorenzo Valley and other affected areas as people have begun sorting out their futures, but it remains unclear what the final rebuilding totals will look like for fire families.

“We are seeing an uptick in activity over the last six months in terms of folks engaging — close to 40% of folks have come into the recovery permit center and now have either their clearances or their permit,” he said.

Of the 911 destroyed homes, there have been 634 pre-application meetings through the Recovery Permit Center, meaning that just under 70% of the homeowners have expressed interest in rebuilding.

But Reid himself notes that using 911 as a denominator to evaluate recovery efforts is “not the most accurate reflection of who’s engaged”: “Some people are taking this opportunity just to move to a cheaper place to live, taking the [insurance funds] and walking away.”

With added construction challenges — including adhering to the state’s sprinkler code, or financing all aspects of the rebuild after a prolonged pre-clearance process — could lead families to give up.

“It’s hard, because everybody, given the cost of construction, is underinsured. And the cost of materials and labor are outrageous,” Reid said. “But this notion that people can build back to a 1970s-style or 1930s-style house is not realistic … because what they’re doing is they’re looking at the cost of all of these modern code requirements. They’re saying that this is impacting my ability to rebuild, which is totally true.”

The truths are what really hurt for the CZU families trying to rebuild. Here are the three main issues that keep them up at night, and what the county says it is doing to help alleviate those concerns.

The timeline to break ground

While Santa Cruz County’s rebuild numbers look slightly ahead of those attempts in Napa and El Dorado County, the wait has been torturous for CZU survivors.

“This has been a nightmare,” Boulder Creek’s Tracy Walker said bluntly.

Walker, her husband and two children lived in a 700-square-foot home they bought in 2016 in the Riverside Grove neighborhood. After evacuating Aug. 18, 2020, and learning that the home, built in the 1930s, was lost Aug. 21, the Walkers went to work on debris removal and cleanup with a private contractor, and in December 2020 became one of the first families to submit the cleanup to the county. From that point until nearly a year later — in October 2021 — Walker and her family waited, going back and forth with the county on geologic hazard assessments, debating whether an ancient landslide would affect the rebuild.

Scenes from the fire
Scenes from the fire: Tracy Walker received these photos from a neighbor, showing her property during and immediately after the CZU fire destroyed her home in August 2020.
(Via Tracy Walker)

“[The county geologist] said our geologist didn’t go in depth enough, and they wanted him to create a 100-foot boring on our property, which took months to get someone with the right qualifications,” Walker said. “After we submitted the findings, the county asked our geologist to do more — so he ended up quitting on us.”

Mike Kubo — who decided to evacuate Empire Grade Ridge early on Aug. 18, 2020, with his wife, young daughter, two cats and au pair — checked in with his insurance company immediately after the evacuation to confirm “loss of use” of the family home. The family moved in with Kubo’s parents in Aptos, splitting their established two-bedroom mobile home among six people — a cramped situation that couldn’t last for long.

Similar to other CZU families, Kubo says his insurance stipulates that fire families have two years to rebuild, with an extra year if there are legitimate delays. Kubo said they finally broke ground on March 30 of this year — and they were one of the first homes cleared in their neighborhood, back in December 2020.

“In our neighborhood, we lost 45 homes out of 62 total,” he said. “There are maybe 15 that are firmly underway or almost finished with permits — the rest are … it’s uncertain whether they’re going to rebuild.”

Julie Lucia, whose home was one of the 26 lost in Boulder Creek’s Fallen Leaf neighborhood, said her family has battled its insurance company for additional living expenses, especially as the county’s geologists continued asking for extra information. By last fall, Lucia’s geologic hazard assessment was approved due to the Atkins study — the geologic study conducted at the request of the County Board of Supervisors, to evaluate debris flow patterns and potential trouble areas for rebuilds. By then, it was too late to break ground before requiring a winter grading permit, with potential for higher building costs and delays due to inclement weather.

“Here it was, six to eight months of delay, for absolutely nothing,” Lucia said.

While her insurance company hasn’t set monetary limitations, there is a timeline limit. The Lucias were able to extend their additional living expenses through September 2022, from the original deadline of April 2022, but Lucia said that still won’t be enough time to move into their new home.

“I had to start keeping records of all my communication with the county so that I could prove to the insurance company that it’s not us stalling the rebuild,” she said. “We want the [county] to really do what they said they would do and try to make this process easier for CZU victims.”

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. Her family’s additional living expenses have been extended through September; construction completion is estimated for the end of 2022.
(Via Julie Lucia)

Reid acknowledged those concerns, and said his research has found that it’s common for fire communities to not start building until two or three years later. In some communities — like Napa — Reid has seen the rebuilds hit “a peak,” with between 60-80% of households opting to rebuild.

“We’ve improved in some ways for our process, but we also have complexities,” Reid said. “Napa’s website candidly shows an estimated timeline of 18 to 24 months, which is transparent and honorable, but it’s hard information to share. Like, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to take me at least that long.’”

The Santa Cruz County site does not include a direct estimate for rebuild timelines, though CZU families can see the timeline of when permits were approved.

The costs of rebuilding

It doesn’t help that many families looking to rebuild are now saddled with many additional costs — the costs of labor, the costs of materials, the costs of updating properties to 2022 standards.

Walker said that her family and others were massively underinsured for the types of homes they want to rebuild. While her 700-square-foot home was insured for $300 per square foot, construction quotes are at minimum $400 to $500 per square foot, with some as high as $700.

“We’re $75,000 deep, and we haven’t even broken ground yet,” she said. “We still don’t know if we can.”

Kubo said affordability is one of the main reasons so many rebuilds aren’t moving forward: “The numbers that most folks are seeing to rebuild are at least $400 per square foot. If you have a 2,000-square-foot home, that’s $800,000 just in construction. It starts to become a question less about the timing and stress, but is it even worth it?”

Based on April findings from the U.S. Census Bureau, the annual costs of residential construction went up 23.1% from 2020 to 2021; for new construction on single-family homes, there was a 33% increase.

Antonia Bradford and her family of seven decided to stand up yurts on their Boulder Creek property. The yurts, by Bradford’s estimation, cost less than the alternative of renting another space and continuing to rebuild at the same time. With all three pre-clearances complete — including repeated geologic hazard assessments and additional measures that cost valuable time in the building process — Bradford estimates they’ve spent $75,000 so far. And those costs are “eating away” at their budget for actually breaking ground, an issue she believes the county could have addressed better from the start.

 Boulder Creek home
Antonia Bradford and her family had lived in their Boulder Creek home for five years when the CZU fire destroyed it. She calls the experience the “most devastating event” of her life.
(Via Antonia Bradford)

“There wasn’t enough care to carve out those pathways to prevent us from being treated as new builds by the planning department,” she said. “I literally lost everything — it’s woven into their job to protect the system that’s hurting us.”

Reid said he understands that the costs can often become too much for some families, especially as the process continues and rebuilds cost more.

With construction costs 20 to 30% higher than pre-pandemic levels, Reid says those added dollars can make it all the more difficult for families who were already underinsured or uninsured to continue rebuilding.

“I would expect that many of the 119 folks who have all three clearances and haven’t submitted their building permit are going through the math and trying to figure out, you know, what do I need?” he said. “Can I afford to build this house with the money I have? If I can’t, what are my options?”

The emotional trauma

For all of the families Lookout spoke to, one of the major components of the process not directly tied to finances or timelines was the collective trauma of trying to rebuild a home that would never be the same.

Bradford — who bought her home back in 2015 — said losing it to the CZU fire on Aug. 20, 2020, was the “most devastating event” of her life. Even now, 19 months later, she holds back heavy sobs when discussing it.

“The thing that makes this difficult, with the process of rebuilding, is that you have all of this emotional trauma, that you just don’t even realize how deep this kind of pain can go,” she said.

The Bradford family.
(Via Antonia Bradford)

Steve and Christine Homan built their Bonny Doon home back in 1976, nestling into the Pine Ridge neighborhood with their children. They said they expected to live in the house for the rest of their lives, but just over 44 years later, their home was one of the 30 in their neighborhood destroyed in the CZU blaze.

The couple was able to cut through the red tape and break ground fairly quickly on their property, in mid-August 2021. Steve’s previous expertise as an environmental health specialist for Santa Cruz, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties helped. Now they are working to help other families through the arduous process, assisting 28 so far.

“I really shouldn’t have to be doing the consultant work that I’m doing,” he said. “I’ve written letters explaining the delays to insurance companies — the problem is, if you’re held up from making progress, by no fault of your own, the insurance company wants to cut off payment.”

Red tape, updated building codes, construction price hyperinflation and the recurring nightmare of personal loss: All have combined to make CZU rebuilding a slow-motion work in progress. Reid said the difficulties aren’t lost on county officials. While building in the Santa Cruz Mountains can be complicated even under the best conditions, the foundational levels of trauma and loss can make this process overwhelming for homeowners.

“Empathetically, emotionally, the start date of recovery was certainly the day they lost their home, or couldn’t return back,” Reid said. “But they couldn’t even begin the rebuilding process without all of the initial steps … in a long journey like this, there are so many steps to help folks walk through their front door.”

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