Santa Cruz County Didn’t Learn Lessons From Devastating CZU Fire, Grand Jury Reports

PUBLISHED JUL 3, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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The Santa Cruz Civil Grand Jury is sharply critical of the county’s CZU fire response, in a newly issued report.

The Santa Cruz Civil Grand Jury is sharply critical of the county’s CZU fire response, in a newly issued report.   Office of the Governor of California   Public Domain

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire burned from Aug. 16 to Sept. 22 of last year, destroying more than 1,400 buildings, including 911 single-family homes, and scorching 86,509 acres in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, wreaking an estimated $2.4 billion in damage. But more than nine months after the fire was contained, Santa Cruz County officials have still not learned the right lessons in how to respond to an out-of-control wildfire—and how to prevent another one.

That was the conclusion of the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury, in a report issued June 24 and titled, “The CZU Lightning Complex Fire – Learn...or Burn?” The grand jury has focused on the county’s fire preparedness before, issuing a report just six weeks prior to the CZU fire that was sharply critical of what it called the “dizzying” complexity of the Santa Cruz fire system and its multiple, sometime overlapping agencies that must somehow all come together to combat region-wide wildfires. 

The earlier report, “Ready? Aim? Fire! Santa Cruz County on the Hot Seat,” contained a number of recommendations that the 2021 grand jury found necessary to repeat, and elaborate upon, especially with regard to the function and transparency of the county government’s fire response. The earlier report noted that “no single organization in the County is assuming a leadership role in Fire Hazard Mitigation. It is not clear whose responsibility it is to minimize this County wide risk.”

In the 2020 report, the grand jury also warned that the county makes residents responsible for their own “vegetation management”—that is, making sure that plant life on their property is well protected against fire. But property owners, the jurors said, often lack education in how to do that, and lack the skills or cash required to properly fireproof their own land.

The Board of Supervisors was not paying enough attention to vegetation management, and failing to properly fund the effort, the 2020 report said. But in its official response, the board said that removal of hazardous vegetation was “expensive and labor intensive,” and not the county’s responsibility anyway, except along county-maintained roads. The supervisors admitted they “could do more” in that specific area.

In the 2021 report, the grand jury complained that its earlier warnings didn’t register with the Board of Supervisors, whose “responses to the Findings and Recommendations of the 2020 ‘Ready? Aim? Fire!’ report show a lack of engagement with the material and a lack of understanding of their role as advocates for the county.”

Santa Cruz County is far from alone in its lagging fire prevention efforts. The Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury cited grand jury reports from seven other counties in recent years, criticizing their own county governments’ lack of fire preparedness, including a 2011 report from Santa Clara County titled “Fighting Fire or Fighting Change,” which criticized local fire departments for sticking to an outdated model of fire response.

Read the Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury report, “The CZU...Fire – Learn...or Burn?”

Read the 2020 grand jury report, “Ready? Aim? Fire! Santa Cruz County on the Hot Seat.”

Read a Santa Cruz Sentinel summary of the 2021 grand jury report.

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