The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
Some evacuees displaced by the CZU Lightning Complex fire continue to stay in recreational vehicles at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County leaders consider helping fire evacuees staying at Fairgrounds

With some evacuees from the massive CZU Lightning Complex fire still staying in recreational vehicles at the Fairgrounds in South County months after the blaze torched hundreds of homes, Santa Cruz County supervisors are looking to get a better grasp of the situation and potentially explore ways the county might help them.

Somewhere between 12 and 15 RVs are still at the Fairgrounds near Watsonville.“They’re all kind of unique situations,” Dave Kegebein, CEO of the Fairgrounds, said Tuesday.

But while Kegebein said the $900 monthly rent the RV owners pay to stay there is the lowest such fee in the county and often in line with what the evacuees paid on private lots, some residents worry about evacuees struggling to make ends meet.

During a special county board meeting Tuesday, they raised the issue with supervisors, saying that some evacuees haven’t been successful in navigating the Federal Emergency Management Agency process and don’t know how they will be able to pay rent.

“They’re very worried. They’re very tight-strapped,” one speaker told supervisors.

Chairperson Bruce McPherson asked staff Tuesday to bring back an update to the board at a future meeting so supervisors can weigh their options. “I want to get more information on this RV hookup thing,” McPherson said in phone interview after the meeting.

Rental assistance could be an option, he said, but he added that he doesn’t “want to get anybody’s hopes up. . . . I’d just like to have more information,” McPherson said.

Many of the evacuees who are still at the Fairgrounds have received rental assistance through FEMA, Assistant County Administrative Officer Elissa Benson told supervisors. But individual aid for rental assistance is not a lump sum and is re-evaluated by FEMA on a regular basis, she said.

“So that may be introducing some of that uncertainty some of our evacuees are feeling,” Benson told supervisors.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that the Fairgrounds is not a county entity, but a state agency governed by its own independent board. And the Fairgrounds has been struggling, too, through the pandemic, Kegebein said.

“We’re in the public gathering and special event market,” he said. “It’s been really difficult.”

Recreational vehicles at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
Some evacuees displaced by the CZU Lightning Complex fire continue to stay in recreational vehicles at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Staff)

The Fairgrounds doesn’t receive tax dollars, but instead lives off the revenues it generates, Kegebein said. “It’s our only way to keep the lights on,” he said.

A county-run program that helped evacuees at the Fairgrounds closed in mid-December, following three extensions of the program with FEMA, Benson said. Typically shelter programs close within 30 days of the event.

The county has ongoing support helping evacuees navigate the housing market, Benson said, and “case management support is in the works for a little bit later in February.”

Emergency declaration extended

Supervisors on Tuesday also unanimously voted to extend the County Administrative Officer’s proclamation of a Local Emergency and the County Health Officer’s declaration of a Local Health Emergency related to the CZU August Lighting Complex Fires.

Although officials declared the fire controlled last month, the threat of debris flows following heavy rain persists. And debris clean-up continues to move along.

About 70 parcels have been fully cleaned up so far, Matt Machado, deputy county administrative officer and director of public works, told supervisors Tuesday.

About seven teams teams are actively cleaning up the other parcels, he said.

“There are a little more than 900 in total,” Machado said. “Most have signed up with either the public option or the private option to do the debris removal. I think we’re only short about 30 or 40 parcels that really aren’t signed up for any option and we’re having to pursue those individually. So we’re making good progress. It’s still a long road ahead of us.”