California is making history.
Wildfires have now burned two million acres this year, a Cal Fire spokesman told the Associated Press on Monday, making 2020 the worst fire year on record since the state first started keeping track in 1987.
The fires include the CZU Complex, which ripped through the Santa Cruz Mountains, destroying more than 900 homes to become the state’s ninth-most destructive fire.
Meanwhile, the second- and third-largest fires in state history—the LNU Lightning Complex and the SCU Lightning Complex—are burning in the San Francisco Bay Area. A dry lightning storm ignited those fires. More blazes started over the past weekend, including ones in Fresno and San Bernardino counties.
It’s all begun before the fall season—which often presents some of the most challenging firefighting conditions—has even arrived. Meanwhile, as firefighters continue to rein in the lightning-sparked blazes still burning on all sides of Santa Clara Valley, larger questions loom about how to recover.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, where hundreds of homes succumbed to the 80,000-acre CZU Complex, officials in both Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties approved a plan to streamline rebuilding in the burn zone.
Santa Cruz County will need to replace street signs while PG&E works to restore energy, and the San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD) needs to figure out how to clean up the water supply after the fires melted several miles of pipes.
It’s still not clear when the water will be safe to drink in Boulder Creek, Nate Gillespie, SLVWD Water Treatment and System supervisor said on a recent community Zoom call.
“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” he forewarned.
There are 354 homes in the district without water, mostly in the area of Big Basin Way and West Park Avenue. SLVWD Interim Manager Rick Rogers said the district plans to restore service to those customers by this weekend.
Initially, the district and the state Water Resources Control Board issued a do-not-drink order to 3,197 homes in the district. It has since restored service to some of those homes.
An SLVWD memo told residents affected by the do-not-drink order they should use bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, making ice and food preparation. Boiling, freezing, filtering, adding disinfectants and letting water stand will not make the water safe, the district warned.
Rogers said the district is working with other local agencies to provide bottled drinking water. Customers may pick up one or two cases of water a day at the district’s operation’s building, located at 13057 Highway 9.
Infrastructure is melted across the district, including 7.5 miles of raw water supply lines—at least some of which were made of HDPE plastic and ran above ground, Rogers said.
The district has $3 million in reserves to help finance the start of emergency repairs, Stephanie Hill, the agency’s finance manager revealed. District officials are working with FEMA and the state to secure emergency funding for repairs.
A few thousand residents in the path of the CZU fires remain evacuated—down from a high of 77,000. Cal Fire on Tuesday reduced evacuation orders to warnings in some areas, including parts of Ben Lomond. Last week, local Cal Fire Chief Deputy Jonathan Cox and Santa Cruz County Deputy Chief Chris Clark told reporters that efforts are shifting from firefighting to recovery and repopulation.
“We understand how frustrating that is for folks—displaced from your homes and then wondering when you’re going to get back home,” Clark said.
Local law enforcement is working with PG&E, Cal Fire and public works officials on repopulating areas that were most affected by fire, he said. That includes making road repairs, removing debris and making sure fires are fully extinguished. As Santa Cruz Mountains residents move home, Clark encouraged them to look around their properties to make sure there are no smoldering materials that could reignite.
It could be two more weeks before PG&E restores energy, but mountain residents who have lived without power before and are ready to move home, as many of them have generators,” Clark said. Indeed, the sheriff’s office will allow some residents to return before PG&E fully restores power.
Water infrastructure suffered serious damage in the CZU fire; not just in Boulder Creek, but also in Davenport.
Santa Cruz County Public Works Director Matt Machado and his colleagues have submitted an initial damage assessment to the state and listed out damage totaling $340 million, including $310 million to homes and other buildings on private property. But that’s just a start. The county will update the assessment several times, Machado said. Meanwhile, the state Office of Emergency Services and FEMA are reviewing documents now to begin approving debris removal and restoration projects.
The fire destroyed 400 street signs, Muchado said. Now, Santa Cruz County officials are working on replacing all of those.
“We’re probably going to do a lot of temporary signs because it’s just a huge effort to get them all permanently,” he said. “We think that all the critical ones will be up in the next couple weeks as we repopulate. Then we’ll go back and do full restoration as we can.”
Public works is also working on fixing two bridges—one of which was fully destroyed—and three culverts on Swanton Road.
With repopulation happening in some areas, the Santa Cruz County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is now shifting attention to the needs of people who have been displaced from their homes.
Shelter population has declined by more than two-thirds since the repopulation process began, Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin said. The EOC is winding down operations at several temporary shelters.
Other shelters remain open at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds in Watsonville, Seventh Day Adventist Conference Grounds in Soquel and Cabrillo College in Aptos. The county is transitioning shelter operations at those spots to the American Red Cross.
The Recovery Resource Center at Kaiser Permanente offers evacuees about 20 resources under one roof, including services from the state DMV, FEMA, CalOES, Red Cross, Cal Fresh, County Environmental Health, Friends of County Parks and a list of federal, state and local agencies and nonprofits.
Additional reporting by Tarmo Hannula