I hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday filled with family, food and connection. My own household came together to celebrate, and we did so in our rebuilt home. After over three grueling years since we lost our home to the CZU Fire, we can finally declare our rebuild is almost complete. We received our temporary occupancy on Monday with a very short list of items to complete for our final sign off. Yet as we celebrate, there is heaviness seeing empty lots scattered around our neighborhood where homes once stood. Few of our fellow fire survivors have been afforded the same closure as paralyzing county permit delays drag on.
We are some of the lucky ones. But for most of the fire community, the bottlenecked county planning department has severely hampered rebuilding prospects. Rebuild efforts remain mired for years in geology, environment health and other departments. Some families not even passed the few first steps for permit acquisition but not for lack of trying their very best. And the consequences grow by the day. Costs continue to explode. Contractors are booked far in advance, holdups causing missed narrow rebuilding windows. Continued displacement strains families, already battered by the compounded trauma of wildfire and a lengthy, uncertain recovery. And the delays have already made some sell their properties below value, with losing hope of ever coming home.
Every single day exacerbates the issue. The longer the delays, the greater the costs. Financially and otherwise.
Here is my own personal example: My family was set to break ground early 2021 after fighting our way through the county requirements for months. Suddenly the county halted all forward progress with any neighborhood with drainages (water flows). Our lot sat untouched while this study was done, and it was completed over nine months later. In that time our bid ballooned with an increased cost of over $300,000. Simply from just the delay, nothing else had changed. We had to take out excessive loans and take over our build half way through because we just couldn’t afford to pay our GC, but were in too deep and had already spent too much money satisfying lengthy requirements to walk away. While of course I understand wanting to ensure public safety, these drainages existed before the fire and debris flow risk mitigates over time.
Surviving the CZU should warrant exceptions and assistance, not endless red tape that obstructs fresh starts.Our forever-changed street is a microcosm - a few completed homes offering hope while surrounding emptiness reflects the persisting challenges.
So where do we go from here?
As candidate for 5th district supervisor and a CZU Fire Survivor I can see clearly the pain points where constituents get held up with our planning department. These issues do not just effect those of us who lost our homes, it effects every single person in this district through cascade affects on our housing shortage and cost of living, reduced property taxes resulting in less funds for county services, less community members to fill our schools or frequent our small businesses. It is NOT enough to say that fire families will have a streamlined process, we are pushing four years with forty eight homes being completed. We need to actually create the path for disaster victims even beyond CZU to recover.
This is not an exhaustive plan/list, but really some food for thought.
Provide financial & rebuilding assistance:
Connect victims with available state/federal financial help for uninsured losses in meaningful ways that include a centrally located disaster assistance center to help answer questions. This needs to be promoted BROADLY so it reaches as many people as possible. Many people didn’t understand that help was available or how to get it. This is a communication issue on the part of our governmental bodies
Fund non-profit rebuild advisors to guide victims through construction process to avoid expensive oversights and corrections on plans
Establish county-sponsored rebuild information sessions and hotline
Weekly town halls to answer questions and to guide people to proper resources
Waive minor development fees and reviews for fire rebuilds
Relax permit rules around tree removal and erosion measures
Push state for building code exemptions tailored for disaster recovery; it is very important to remember that while county typically has to adhere to state code as the minimum when a natural disaster strikes the state often defers to local jurisdiction in some areas
Work with other supervisors to tackle the obstruction in the planning department; work to dismantle the no growth policy that has been in play since the 80’s that has worked agains not only disaster recovery but property improvements
With a survivor-centered approach, proactive policy changes, and added resources, the county can help residents navigate logjams and get back home sooner. It starts with officials prioritizing fire rebuilds to match the urgent needs of the community it serves.
Over the last almost four years I have watched fire survivors beg for help, plead their cases and claw their way to rebuild. The amount of stress, both mental and financial, can not be overstated. With a personal understanding of fire recovery my goal is to minimize the stressors on those who lost everything and to be an ally in recovery. Not just for CZU survivors, but for 2023 storm victims and all further disaster victims.
Everyone deserves this kind of support in the face of such tragedy.