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Shortly before the 2020 fires, Santa Cruz County's Grand Jury warned that the regional fire prevention system was dangerously complex.
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Santa Cruz County’s fire-protection system is such a complex jumble, the Santa Cruz County grand jury warned of risk just months before the worst fire in the county’s history.
On July 3, 2020, the grand jury wrapped up its yearlong session by publishing a 97-page report with a rather cheeky headline: “Ready? Aim? Fire! Santa Cruz County on the Hot Seat.” The report was one of 11 issued by the grand jury, but despite the whimsical title, the fire report was dead serious. The report issued dire warnings to the county to improve its fire prevention practices, which had fallen behind, creating an “increased risk of fire danger.”
Just six weeks after the report, on Aug. 16, a massive electrical storm slammed into Santa Cruz County, and much of the Bay Area. An estimated 11,000 lightning strikes raked the region, immediately igniting a series of wildfires that became collectively known as the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. The conflagration was not controlled for another 37 days, according to the state agency Cal Fire. It took another three months, until Dec. 28, for firefighters to declare the CZU fire fully extinguished.
In the end, while the fire miraculously claimed only one life, it burned 86,509 acres spanning Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, destroying 1,490 buildings, according to Cal Fire data, and damaging another 140, at an estimated economic cost of $2.4 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute. That figure doesn’t include the $68 million it cost county and state fire agencies to combat the blaze.
The CZU Lightning Complex was the largest fire in the history of Santa Cruz County, employees of the San Mateo-Santa Cruz Cal Fire Unit told Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter Hannah Hagemann.
A ‘Dizzying’ Fire Protection System
If the problems identified by the grand jury had been addressed, would that have prevented, or at least mitigated, the devastation caused by the 2020 CZU fire? (“CZU,” by the way, is Cal Fire’s official designation for its Santa Cruz-San Mateo fire unit.) That’s impossible to know. But one of the issues that the grand jury hit hardest was the incredible complexity of Santa Cruz County’s fire prevention system — a tangled web of agencies, local fire districts, state and city fire departments and battalions.
The report compared what it called Santa Cruz’s “dizzying” multi-agency system with those in two other California counties, Contra Costa and Los Angeles. Despite being two of the state’s 10 most populous counties—Los Angeles is first in the state, Contra Costa ninth—each somehow gets by with a single fire department covering most of the county, run by a board of directors, who oversee a fire chief. Contra Costa has five smaller districts, but the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District encompasses about 60 percent of the county population within its boundaries.
Santa Cruz County, only the 24th most populated of California’s 58 counties, spreads fire prevention responsibility among no fewer than 11 different fire districts, three city fire departments—Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley and Watsonville—plus the Cal Fire CZU unit, the Santa Cruz County Fire Department, and the University of California at Santa Cruz, which maintains its own emergency services operation. Each of the 10 fire districts is managed by its own five-member board of directors, with each director elected to four-year terms. City fire districts operate differently, reporting instead to the city manager. The Cal Fire CZU unit is governed by the county’s Office of Emergency Services.
The Santa Cruz County Fire Department falls under the jurisdiction of the county board of supervisors, another five-member board whose members, of course, are also elected to four-year terms. County Fire is responsible for covering County Service Area 48, an assemblage of rural, unincorporated regions that include, according to the department’s website, Bonny Doon, Davenport, Loma Prieta, Corralitos, Las Cumbres and the South Skyline area.
All of the multifarious fire organizations in the county maintain “mutual aid agreements” with each other that allow sharing of resources and even costs. But as the grand jury noted, when outside counties require fire assistance from the Santa Cruz agencies, “it can get complicated.”
Fighting Fire With Taxes: A Difficult Proposition
Fire districts are funded primarily out of local property taxes—which immediately makes them a matter of controversy, despite what would appear to be California’s extraordinary need for adequate fire protection. Ballot measures to increase tax revenue for cash-strapped fire districts and departments get rejected by voters roughly 50 percent of the time, according to a Sacramento Bee report, which noted that voters in El Dorado County refused to pass a tax hike to fund a local fire district just months after the 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people and burned down 18,000 buildings in Butte County, making it the the most destructive wildfire in California history.
In 2018, voters in Shasta County nixed not one but two ballot measures to fund fire protection, though a wildfire had destroyed about a thousand homes in nearby Redding just three months earlier, according to the Bee report.
In Santa Cruz County, however, voters approved a $1.5 million property tax hike to fund County Fire in January of 2020. Budget cuts since 2008, according to a report by Nicholas Ibarra in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, have shaved off 25 percent of County Fire staff. As a result, three firefighters—only two of them paid—staff each engine, instead of the usual four.
The Dangers of WUI
Santa Cruz County has good reason to focus on fire protection. More than half of all county residents live in Wildland-Urban Interface areas, WUI in fire-protection jargon, and more than two-thirds of all land in the county is classified as WUI, according to the nonprofit organization Fire Safe Santa Cruz County.
WUI is generally defined as land on which homes and developments extend into woodlands and other areas of otherwise untouched nature. WUI development leads directly to increased wildfire hazard thanks to the “abundance of both fuel and ignition sources,” according to the grand jury report.
WUI also causes other environmental damage such as degraded groundwater quality, threats to the natural ecosystem posed by domestic pets who roam and prey on small animals, and invasive vegetation that creeps from home gardens into the existing landscape.
More than 167,000 of Santa Cruz County’s 273,000 residents live in 72,000 homes located in WUI areas, according to the grand jury report.
Santa Cruz also has the highest percentage of WUI land of any California county, and that’s saying something. There are 6.7 million acres of WUI in the state, with 11.2 million people living in those fire-hazardous areas. That’s more people living in WUI than any of the other 49 United States.
But the U.S. as a whole has a growing WUI problem. According to the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities—the country’s largest forest-preservation charity—in the 48 contiguous states, the amount of WUI has tripled since 1990.
The relatively vast amount of WUI in the county, and the number of people living those high-risk areas, require a simpler, more straightforward system of preventing and fighting fires, the Santa Cruz County grand jury found, in its 2020 report. In fact, the spaghetti-like organizational chart even made the grand jury’s job of analyzing the problems more difficult than it needed to be, the report said.
“The Santa Cruz County fire organization is extremely complex, making it challenging to properly gauge the level of risk mitigation, effectively measure emergency response, or determine citizens’ readiness to evacuate in an emergency,” the grand jury wrote. “Santa Cruz County residents would benefit from greater efficiency and transparency from the multitude of fire agencies in the county, with the goal of improving preparedness and response.”
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