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Santa Cruz County’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously this week to renew the emergency health order related to the CZU Lightning Complex wildfires that started in August.
The reason for the extension, as recommended by the public health department, is because residents are still displaced and impeding environmental threats of landslides threaten homes and other structures.
“Although the county is well into the recovery period at this point … the danger created by the fires is still present as the county continues to move through the recovery and debris removal stage,” County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios said.
Nearly 99.8 percent of hazardous household waste and bulk asbestos has been removed and the county is well into Phase II, removal of toxic ash and remaining debris, Palacios said.
“It’s still a long road ahead of us.”Matt Machado, Santa Cruz County Public Works director
While that is good, Phase II must be completed before permits to rebuild homes can be granted.
“It’s still a long road ahead of us,” county Director of Public Works Matt Machado said. “There are about 70 parcels completely cleaned up … in addition there are 17 still being cleaned up. There are 900 parcels total.”
The CZU Lightning Complex fires burned more than 85,000 acres in the region, destroying more than 1,000 homes in the county alone. In Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, more than 77,000 people were displaced.
With homes still being cleaned up from fire damage, those 77,000 people are having to find short-term housing solutions — more than 100 of which are still struggling, according to county data.
“We no longer have anyone at the Fairgrounds, we closed that facility about a month ago … but we do have some survivors who are using their FEMA benefits to stay in hotels. They are not yet able to find short-term housing,” Assistant County Administrative Officer Elissa Benson said.
Problems beyond finding shelter
Benson noted that the county is helping residents navigate the housing market and find short-term solutions.
“Mental health support and online case management is in the works for later in February,” Benson said.
But debris cleanup and housing-displaced residents is only part of the problem. The fires have eroded the soil, making it susceptible to landslides during periods of intense rain.
This is especially threatening for those who live on hilly or sloped areas because heavy rain can cause large mudflows that carry debris, trees, boulders and more — posing an “imminent and proximate threat to public health,” the emergency health order reads.
Mudslides can lead to property damage and loss of road access, limiting rescues by safety personnel.
“Residents within and below the CZU Lightning Complex burn scar should be prepared to evacuate prior to powerful storms expected to meet certain benchmarks for rainfall intensity,” county spokesman Jason Hoppin said.
The county also encourages landlords who can help shelter fire victims to sign up online.