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Regional Interests

‘I Can’t Abandon This Community’: Months After CZU Fires, Survivors Struggle to Rebuild

Sylvie Fraley describes the home she lived in with her mother and younger sister in the Santa Cruz Mountains community of Bonny Doon as “incredibly unique.” Her mom, Leigh-Anne Lehrman said “it was built by hippies, for sure.” Not only was it a beautiful home, but it had become a community gathering space — the place every high school after-prom party was hosted, every graduation, and every birthday, even special occasions for those outside their family.

On the night of Aug. 15, 2020, the power went out at Fraley’s home as rare lightning storms approached. Then 18 years old, she was home with her younger sister while her mom stayed in Woodside undergoing cancer treatment. Fraley, bored without electricity, busied herself by walking through the house collecting items, just in case they would need to leave — if the lightning storms ignited a fire.

“The only reason we took anything was because I was bored and had nothing else to do except to walk through the house and put stuff in a trash bag,” she said.

The family is familiar with fire — in 2017, Fraley’s grandfather lost his North Bay home in the deadly and massively destructive Tubbs Fire. Still, when Fraley and her sister left in the early hours of Aug. 16, after her mom sent a neighbor to look for them, they fully expected to return.

By the time many people woke up on Aug. 16, the widespread lightning storms had ignited numerous fires in and around the Santa Cruz Mountains, blazes that would later become known as the CZU Lightning Complex fires. In a March 2021 community meeting, Cal Fire said the CZU fires were the largest in the recorded history of Santa Cruz County. They killed one person, forced the evacuation of over 77,000 people in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties and destroyed 911 homes.

Not long after the CZU fires began, just a few miles away from Fraley’s home in the San Lorenzo Valley, Antoñia Bradford rushed around her house gathering her kids and dogs while frantically texting her husband who was in San Jose.

“I packed up my five kids and my two dogs and grabbed my father’s ashes and some paintings,” Bradford said, but, “the way that we were reading things, the fire was moving away from us.”

A couple of days later, Bradford’s home – and Fraley’s – had been transformed into rubble and ash.

‘I Can’t Abandon This Community’

Over 10 months after the CZU fires, many are still working to process and rebuild their lives — both physically and emotionally.

Bradford, who has lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 13 years and appreciates how down-to-earth people are, is still mourning the losses. But she is committed to staying and rebuilding.

“I can’t even express how challenging it is. The grief is so deep,” she said. “I can’t abandon this community.”

A few days before KQED spoke to her, Bradford said a neighbor had dropped off soup for her — someone she had never met before. “The people here are amazing, and I feel like I would be really hard pressed to find that anywhere else.”

Leigh-Anne Lehrman, Fraley’s mom, ranked the loss of community as the one she feels most keenly.

“Of all the things we lost in 2020, and there were a lot of them, the thing that I miss the most — that I don’t think I’ll ever, ever replicate in my life — is our community up there,” she said.

Priced Out

Fraley and Lehrman, who were renters, said they were priced out after losing their home to the CZU fires. Lehrman said they had a hard time finding a place, even though they had financial assistance in the form of insurance money.

“The rent’s just shot up,” she said, adding that they were lucky to have found the place they did.

Lehrman said it was the 40th place she contacted before someone responded. If they didn’t have the insurance money, she said there’s no way they would be able to afford it. Since the fire, she’s been renting a place in Aptos for $6,500 per month. The Bonny Doon home she rented before it burned cost $3,000 per month.

But it’s not just the cost of rent that’s kept her away from her close-knit community. Lehrman said she hasn’t been back to the neighborhood since the fires for personal reasons. “I’ve chosen not to ever go back up there,” she said. She doesn’t want to ruin the memories she has.

‘Gone in an Instant’ – Loss of Home, and Income

For others, the fires took away not only a home, but a source of income.

“I am 76 years old, disabled, a lung cancer survivor, and I will probably end up living in a trailer,” said CZU fires survivor Catherine Wilson. She has owned her home since she was 23. “I worked my whole life to have the property I had in Boulder Creek,” she said.

Wilson’s property consists of a third of an acre with an 800-square-foot one-bedroom house that she used as her own residence, and a smaller one-bedroom cabin she rented out. Both structures were completely destroyed by fire. She told KQED she had no mortgage payments and said the cabin rent basically served as her pension.

Wilson had insurance for both structures – but despite receiving policy limits for both homes, she said it may not be enough to rebuild even one structure. Even if she is able to rebuild one house, she said she’ll probably have to sell because she’s lost her income.

Catherine Wilson stands on the Boulder Creek property where her home and a smaller cabin once stood, on April 9, 2021. Both were destroyed by the CZU fires last August. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Wilson applied to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for assistance, but got sent to the Small Business Administration since FEMA said she was a business.

The SBA then bounced her back and forth between its homeowner and business sides.

“I qualified for $40,000 but it had to be spent only on personal property and only after I have used my insurance proceeds,” she said. “Here’s the thing: I need a house before I can buy any personal property to put into it.”

Catherine Wilson holds the only item she was able to recover from her home – a sword – after the CZU fires destroyed both her home and her rental cabin last August. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Wilson is continuing to work on the rebuilding process, but she’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to get back to the life she had before — a secure residence she could live in, and a small income from her rental property that provided enough to live on.

“It took me 50 years to get those things,” she said. “And they were gone in an instant.”

Challenges to Rebuilding

Wilson said there are many CZU fire survivors worse off than she is, and she worries that for many, the county approvals and regulations necessary to rebuild will prove insurmountable barriers.

“I believe that people who can’t afford to rebuild will sell for what they can get, and this county will become a county of rich people,” Wilson said.

Because of the challenging topography of the Santa Cruz Mountains, many fire survivors must undergo a geologic survey of their properties – conducted by the county – before they can rebuild.

“The fire-burned soil doesn’t hold together and doesn’t cling to the hillside,” said Kirsten Flynn, a fire survivor who has been working to rebuild a family home in Boulder Creek that was used as a rental for the last few years.

Jason Hoppin, communications manager for Santa Cruz County, echoed Flynn in describing how after a big fire, the ground is unable to absorb water and rainfall can create rivers of mud and debris flows, “which have the capability of taking out cars, houses and lives — anything in its path.” So these geologic surveys are essential to ensure the ground is ready to be rebuilt on.

Hoppin said the risk from debris flow can be greater than the fire itself. A more in-depth explanation of debris flow can be found on the county website.

For Flynn and many others hoping to rebuild, the geologic surveys have delayed them from moving to the next step in the process. Depending on the complexity of a property, survey fees can add up to thousands of dollars.

In addition to the geologic survey, homeowners must also pass a county-conducted fire safety check to ensure the fire department would be able to safely access the building in a future emergency, in addition to an environmental health assessment.

Flynn said the fire safety, environmental and geologic clearances cost her $1,254. But for others it can cost much more. Bradford said costs can skyrocket to over $5,000 if the county requires advanced surveys by an outside geologist in addition to the county review fee.

“There’s issues beyond what we can control,” Flynn said. “It’s not like just getting a plan and building something.”

To make things slightly more complicated, the environmental health assessment is conducted by the same overburdened county department that has been handling the county’s response to COVID.

“A catastrophe [the fire] occurred, on top of a global pandemic,” said Flynn. “For different reasons. The county is struggling and the fire victims are struggling.”

In an effort to clearly track all of the labyrinthine steps she’s had to go through, Flynn created a graphic to share with others.

“It’s like the worst game of Chutes and Ladders you have ever played,” she said, describing the nightmare process of getting all the checks needed to rebuild.

CZU fires survivor Kirsten Flynn created this flow chart to illustrate the complexity of the rebuilding process. (Courtesy of Kirsten Flynn)

For others, like Brian and Emma Dean, who lost their Boulder Creek home to the CZU fires, the cost of materials is proving another barrier to rebuilding.

The Deans got insurance money and are in the process of rebuilding – but because of the significant increase in the cost of lumber (up 400% at some points over the past year), the insurance doesn’t cover their current rebuilding cost estimate.

At the beginning of June, Brian Dean estimated they’re short up to $300,000 – almost double the original rebuilding estimate they received. They’re waiting for lumber prices to go down before they attempt to rebuild.

Brian and Emma Dean hold a photo of their house at the property in Boulder Creek on April 9, 2021, where the home stood before it was destroyed by the CZU Lighting Complex fire. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On top of all of this are proposed draft fire safety rules from the state.

When finalized, those regulations could significantly impact how fire survivors across the state can rebuild. In the Santa Cruz Mountains, the regulations could result in new guidelines on how wide the region’s notoriously narrow, winding residential roads need to be in order to safely accommodate emergency vehicles – and additional costs could wind up being the responsibility of homeowners. Public comment on the draft regulations just closed on June 22.

“My fear is that the longer you wait, the more politics there will be,” Brian Dean said.

Preparing for the Future

As California’s drought continues to worsen and temperatures increase over the summer, fuel moisture levels in many areas are far lower than usual for this time of year. Researchers who have been measuring moisture levels in the forest and chaparral of the Santa Cruz Mountains said levels are lower than they’ve ever seen since they began measuring eight years ago.

In mid-April, Santa Cruz County launched a new disaster preparedness website, which provides resources and information on ongoing recovery efforts, as well as how to prepare for a disaster. The site will also be a home for information on county efforts on climate change.

Cal Fire Deputy Chief Nate Armstrong said San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties have taken proactive steps regarding prevention efforts. And one of the biggest local efforts is through education, including online webinars as well as an increase in defensible space inspectors.

For Bradford, who is still mourning the loss of her home while working to rebuild, she would like to see more community efforts for fire preparation. With this in mind, she started a Facebook group dedicated to fire prevention in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

“We’re choosing to live here,” she said. “We need to be proactive about what fire safety means and really engaging with nature.”

Bradford feels like the county and state have already forgotten the people that lost everything.

“Part of my anxiety around all of this — I’m not seeing a proactive stance taken by the state, taken by the county to protect us,” she said.

Resources:

Santa Cruz County disaster preparedness website How to Help: Information on donating and volunteering Facebook SLV Support Group for Home Loss-CZU Lightning Complex fires.

KQED’s David Marks contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 KQED