Only 24 of 911 lost CZU houses rebuilt. Can we please cut the red tape so my neighbors can come home?

a man stands looking at an empty lot in the woods
(Via Daniel DeLong)

Ben Lomond resident Daniel DeLong misses his neighbors. Many lost homes in the CZU fire in 2020 and have struggled with the bureaucracy of rebuilding. Too many, he writes, are giving up, worn out by paperwork and the demands of bureaucrats. For him, the numbers say it all: 911 homes lost, 24 rebuilds. “Look, I know these are just people doing their jobs,” he says of those in charge of approving rebuilds. “They’re checking the boxes that codes and regulations require. … But I also know that bureaucracies don’t always have to be as mindless, as dehumanizing, as soul-crushing.”

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It’s way, way quieter up here now.

A few nights ago, I put our trash cans into the back of my truck, like I do every week, and drove down our street out to Alba Road. No cars came by while I unloaded in the darkness. I placed the cans next to the others already set out for pickup — a much shorter line of gray and green and blue plastic receptacles than there had always been before CZU.

It was quiet.

No cars came by when I drove across Alba, turned around in my neighbor’s driveway, and then crossed back over and headed home. I still looked both ways before I pulled out into the road, but with much less anticipation than in years past.

There just aren’t as many cars on Alba Road in the evenings anymore.

Because far fewer people live up here now.

I remember when the quiet first came to the San Lorenzo Valley at the beginning of COVID-19, the beginning of the lockdowns, when the familiar sound of traffic in the valley and on the mountain was suddenly all but gone. A fraction of the commuters on Highway 9, hardly any trucks downshifting on the hill, no Sunday swarms of crotch rockets buzzing up on Empire Grade.

But back then, we had the Howl. Remember the Howl? The Howl was good.

Quiet can be good. Or not so good.

The worst quiet I ever experienced was during the nights I spent hiding out in the smoldering remains of our neighborhood during CZU, barely sleeping, getting up every hour or so to circle in the darkness and check for some errant ember that might have dropped inside the fire line I’d managed to scratch around our house (one of the few homes on our street that had survived), knowing it would have been pretty lame to have lost it at that point.

No cars, no people, no animal, no bird, no insect. Just an unnatural, oppressive silence shattered every 20 minutes or so by the distant crash of another tree falling somewhere in the forest.

It was the only significant sound I regularly heard every night, during the strangest quiet I’ve ever known.

Sure, bureaucracies serve a purpose. I accept the need for their existence … right up to the point where they just become an end unto themselves, and ultimately (and ironically) serve to impede the very thing they were created for in the first place.

These days up here, the daytime tends to be pretty loud, of course, but it’s a different set of sounds: heavy equipment being hauled up and down the roads, saws, hammers, compressors, construction noises coming from the few houses being rebuilt in our neighborhood. I don’t mind those noises at all. I welcome them. They are the neighbors who have managed to pull it off, and will soon be home.

But the nights? They’re pretty quiet.

Many lots still sit empty. Less than empty, if you think about what was there before.

While they appreciated the efficiency with which the burned and toxic remains of their home and lives were scraped away shortly after the fire, whenever my friends who own the now-vacant parcel next door to us look at their empty land, they can’t help but feel they were erased.

As my best friend put it: “I just want to go home.”

CZU destroyed 911 homes in Santa Cruz County. The eerie coincidence of that number is something everybody recognizes, but nobody wants to acknowledge, and as I’m writing this — coming up on 2½ years since the fire — the number of building permits issued stands at 167.

The number of homes rebuilt: 24

How is this even remotely acceptable?

To be fair, 4Leaf, Inc. (the company the county contracted with to handle permits for fire rebuilds) is getting some permits issued in near-record time (once all the hurdles and minefields are navigated so someone can actually submit), and the Recovery Permit Center Dashboard on the county website is pretty cool (wish the rest of the county online experiences were as refreshingly modern and as functional).

But every time I see a post from yet another neighbor who has finally just given up on rebuilding altogether … ?

We can do better. We should do better. They should do better.

Yeah, “they” … the bureaucrats and the bureaucracies they work for. And not just the county. The insurance companies. The state of California. The Small Business Administration. All of ‘em.

Sorry to call this out for what it is.

Wait, no. Not sorry.

OK, a little sorry.

a house being rebuilt
(Via Daniel DeLong)

Look, I know these are just people doing their jobs. They’re checking the boxes that codes and regulations require. Following the policies of a business that needs to make a profit to stay in business. I get that.

But I also know that bureaucracies don’t always have to be as mindless, as dehumanizing, as soul-crushing. In fact, they can be very much less bureaucratic if the need is great enough.

In 2007, when a fuel tanker truck crashed in the MacArthur Maze, burst into flames and melted a critical overpass/connecting ramp of Interstates 80 and 580 in Oakland, contractors fixed the infrastructure and opened the road in just 26 days. “The Governator” touted this amazingly quick repair job as the “best side” of government in action.

The 220-foot section of Highway 35 that became a gaping chasm when it slid away in 2017 was turned back into a road in less than a year — at least one year sooner than if the government hadn’t “fast-tracked” it. About 60 contractors and subcontractors worked in concert, with crews starting to move dirt even before Caltrans had finalized the repair plans.

Think someone maybe bypassed a few bureaucratic check boxes to make those projects happen as quickly as they did?

When it really matters, when there is enough money and/or political capital on the line, bureaucracies suddenly become streamlined. Or even disappear almost entirely.

Both of the above highway repairs were major priorities, for obvious reasons.

Why isn’t it as much of a priority for CZU survivors to be able to go home?

Where is that “best side” of government in action that Governor Arnie was so proud of?

a house being rebuilt
(Via Daniel DeLong)

Sure, bureaucracies serve a purpose. I accept the need for their existence … right up to the point where they just become an end unto themselves, and ultimately (and ironically) serve to impede the very thing they were created for in the first place.

Am I being too critical of the CZU Lightning Complex fire rebuild bureaucratic systems that have been put in place?

I don’t know.

I can only look at the rebuild numbers and be appalled.

I can only see the stress, the crushing despair, the insult to injury that so many CZU survivors are still experiencing while trying to rebuild nearly 2½ years after losing everything.

They just want to go home.

But point this out, and the bureaucrats will merely shrug and show you their check boxes. What else can they do? I really don’t blame them.


That much.

As much as my gut makes me feel I should.

* sigh *

I just really want my friends to be able to come home. All of them.

It’s way too quiet.

Daniel DeLong is a retired firefighter who appreciates bureaucracies only a little bit less than he enjoys root canals and phone trees. He did save his home from being destroyed in the CZU fire, but admits it was mostly dumb luck. He gives himself, maybe, 2% credit. But he also acknowledges that his pickup truck deserves probably half of that. His previous piece for Lookout, on the historic 2023 storms, ran in January.

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