.Fires and Floods Make Life in the Santa Cruz Mountains Challenging

The recent storm has many mountain communities reeling as they continue to deal with damage from the CZU Fires

Diane Sterling and her 11-year-old daughter Zasha spent Jan. 12 at the Felton Branch Library, using its Wi-Fi. The Sterlings’ power has been out for several days. One of the worst storms to hit Santa Cruz County caused widespread power outages, especially throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains—some residents went a week or longer without power. Even as storms have begun to ease, nearly 2,000 residents across the county are still without power, according to the online power outage tracker.

While the Sterlings’ power is back on, they remain disconnected in other ways.

“I have no phone and no internet,” Diane says. “If I wasn’t trying to work, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

The British native says she’s surprised the local infrastructure isn’t set up to handle rainy conditions.

“They don’t have any drains or gutters,” she says, adding that crews could have done more—like trim trees and remove the dead ones—to prepare ahead of time. “It’s just very backward.”

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A few days earlier, their road was closed due to fallen trees; when Diane was finally able to make it to the store, it was sold out of ice. Many mountain businesses have been struggling with staffing shortages, closed roads and increased demand for specific items, like ice. Some businesses have had to get creative as a result.

Jeannette Kornher, owner of Kitten Kornher Rescue in Boulder Creek, says she brought her cats from home to join the kitties at her downtown storefront so that she could keep track of them during the torrential weather. Meanwhile, her partner, a veteran of Hurricane Katrina, has been repairing generators for residents.

Krista Scarborough, whose family owns Scarborough Lumber, says that while their stores have seen a significant uptick in sales—emergency tools, building materials—they’ve had staffing difficulties.

“I have employees that have been out of power for nine days,” Krista says.
Still, she says it’s inspiring to see the community pulling together. “Everybody has been extremely understanding and patient.”

THE COUNTY’S RESPONSE

Santa Cruz County responders have begun to make a dent in the crisis that has hit the mountain communities especially hard. Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin noted particular attention had been paid to Lompico’s river systems.

“There was a large ball of wooden roots and trees that could have created a dam along the creek bed if [county workers] didn’t remove it—it’s almost like sticking your finger in a dyke, and then another three problems crop up,” Hoppin says. “Everybody’s working hard and long hours to keep the community on its feet.”

Everybody is also using any means possible—Hoppin says he’s never seen a jet ski used for rescue situations. State Parks used the recreational water vehicle to save Felton Grove residents who didn’t initially evacuate. 

“We were surprised there wasn’t more damage in Paradise Park,” Hoppin says, noting residents’ efforts to elevate their homes throughout the years paid off. 

Though 67 county roads remain closed as of Jan. 16, Santa Cruz County Deputy CAO Matt Machado is optimistic about his team’s progress. Roughly three-quarters of his team have been working in the Santa Cruz Mountains clearing roads. “We’ve had a lot of success in Bonny Doon,” Machado says. “We didn’t have any permanent damage there.”

STILL RECOVERING

As the rain poured down onto Santa Cruz County, it’s hard to imagine the arid conditions that led to the devastating CZU Lightning Complex Fires of 2020. 

With another weather calamity wreaking havoc on businesses, homes and city infrastructure, the destruction is all too familiar for some mountain residents who watched helplessly as the wildfire scorched hillsides and destroyed more than 900 homes nearly two and a half years ago. Some are even eyeing the storm with a sense of Deja Vu as they work to reconstruct the homes that the fires burned down—at least that’s how Ken Mosberg felt after the initial storms hit on New Year’s Eve.  

Mosberg and his wife, Carol Droskey, are one of the families who lost their homes to the CZU fires that torched the hills of Ben Lomond. Two and a half years later, they broke ground on the hill where their house once stood and even built the foundation and drywall, an accomplishment that not many CZU fire victims can relate to. 

According to the county’s website, there are still 218 survivors whose permits to rebuild their homes haven’t been processed, and 194 people with all three permits are in the rebuilding process. Only 24 people have entirely overhauled their homes. 

All those waiting to break ground are held up due to the clearances that preempt receiving county permits. Mosberg credits the swift success of receiving authorization and permitting to his house’s relative newness: built in the ’90s, the home was already up to recent state codes compared to many of his neighbors in more rural areas of the mountains. 

But the recent storms have set the rebuilding progress back a few weeks. The nine inches or so of rain decimated Mosberg’s temporary drainage system that prevents water from going over the hillside. After the New Year’s Eve storm, the hill’s drop-off eroded to just a few feet away from the new house’s foundation. 

“On New Year’s Day, I walked out back, and that yard area was gone,” Mosberg says. “There was still water running over the hill eroding the hillside. I had a moment where I wanted to say, ‘eff it. Let it go.’” 

According to Mosberg, stubbornness propelled him to dig out the channels around his house, funneling the excess water and avoiding any indoor flooding.

“After going through as much as we’ve gone through, I wasn’t willing to just let it go,” he says. “I’m also probably way too optimistic. That’s the problem.” 

So far, Machado says that he hasn’t seen a pattern of washouts, mudslides or falling trees being triggered due to the previous destruction of the fires or burn scars. 

“The mountainsides have kind of healed up a bit,” he says.

Mosberg hopes to have his new home completed in the upcoming months. The trenches he and his neighbor dug to funnel excess water from the hillside into the streets have been vital. The makeshift canals, he hopes, will keep his home out of harm’s way and allow him and his family to sleep under their home’s new roof very soon. 

“It’s fires or floods, one of the two, right?” Mosberg says with a chuckle. “I have to laugh.”

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