While the risk of wildfires in this area has increased dramatically over the last few years, Santa Cruz County is mired in a bureaucratic mess—a dizzyingly long list of separate fire districts, little to no accountability and other hazardous problems, a watchdog analysis has found.
For starters, many California counties are served by a single, highly structured fire district—as laid out in a 2019-20 Grand Jury report—with a single set of policies, procedures and priorities. But despite its small size of just 280,000 residents, Santa Cruz County’s fire-response organization is made up of 10 independent fire districts, two city and one large university fire departments, and also Cal Fire, which is supported by five independent community volunteer battalions. That volume of agencies has created a confusing patchwork of emergency preparedness and response, the report argues. A separate local Grand Jury report, also released this year, found almost all departments falling short on their required inspections.
“All the agencies, including county fire, have some shortcomings, especially when it comes to the prevention side,” Ian Larkin, Santa Cruz County fire chief and the chief for the Cal Fire San Mateo Santa Cruz Unit, tells GT. Larkin, who is still reviewing the reports, adds that they are working to improve them.
Santa Cruz County has particular vulnerabilities to wildfire.
That’s partly because of the size of the Wildfire Urban Interface (WUI) zone, which is considered the highest risk area of wildfire due to the abundance of both fuel and ignition sources. A majority of residents—62,000 homes—live in the county’s WUI zone, according to the Grand Jury report, citing data from the U.S. Forest Service.
The authors also believe that a high level of apathy to the risks of fire persists among county residents, even though reporting in recent years has shone a light on just how serious the dangers of such a disaster could be. Some swaths of the county, like Prospect Heights and the San Lorenzo Valley, are at risk to the same types of devastating wildfires that struck semi-rural areas of Santa Barbara County and Santa Rosa in recent years—as GT reported in 2018. And according to an analysis by USA Today, Santa Cruz County has six communities with a higher wildfire risk than Paradise, California, which suffered a devastating blaze in November of 2018. Those local communities include Boulder Creek, Lompico, Zayante, Scotts Valley, Brookdale and portions of rural Aptos, as Santa Cruz Local reported last year.
What’s more, fire season is just picking up on the West Coast. After a dry winter and a warm spring, a climate scientist recently told CalMatters that California is “probably going to be in for a long and difficult fire season.”
Gine Johnson, an analyst for 5th District County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, says wildfire hazards are a top concern for McPherson, who was traveling this week and could not be reached for comment by deadline. McPherson’s district includes the entire San Lorenzo Valley.
Johnson notes that the county’s rural property owners recently agreed to a tax increase in order to increase firefighter operations, and she says the county is competing for a grant to sign a contract for the program Zonehaven, which assists with fire response and evacuations. She says she and McPherson are mindful of the constraints that narrow roads would pose in the event of a disaster.
“That’s a challenge,” she says.
Meanwhile, a new partnership—called the Santa Cruz Mountains Stewardship Network—is aiming to better understand parts of the county’s wild spaces and how to make them safer.
The network brings together 22 land-owning groups, including public agencies, land trusts, universities, and logging companies. Among their various efforts, those partners are working on mapping out the vegetation of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The information should help inform fire crews how best to trim back overgrown fuel sources and provide valuable data to help fight fires in real time, while also assisting in overall stewardship.
“We knew from the beginning that it would be good for fire, that it would be good for restoration projects, that it would be good for any kind of management in the region,” the network’s manager Dylan Skybrook says of the collaboration.
But the county still faces other challenges when it comes to disaster risk. Santa Cruz County Fire, for instance, has about 25% fewer paid firefighters on staff today than it did 10 years ago, and it has seen a 45% reduction of volunteer firefighters.
Many of the issues in the Grand Jury report also have to do with communication.
Jurors found that, unlike other organizations around the state, Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission has not released Insurance Services Office scores for fire risk—information that could help homeowners learn more about the risk their homes are in and about what they can do to offset it.
The jury found a maze of government plans and paperwork aimed at mitigating fire risk, but they were seldom integrated with one another, and often out of date. The Hazard Mitigation Plan apparently gets updated once every five years, the FEMA minimum.
The report states that the county has no integrated mutual aid plan, and it describes confusion as to whether local departments were meeting response time benchmarks or not.
Additionally, in an era when aging California power lines have been sparking fires, county authorities are unaware of where high-risk PG&E equipment is located, and they are therefore unable to conduct inspections, supervise vegetation removal, or even notify nearby residents of possible risks, the report states.
The document makes 25 recommendations, including that the county’s fire departments be better integrated with one another and that the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors increase its scrutiny and oversight of its contract with Cal Fire. The Grand Jury is asking for responses from 16 government bodies and agencies by Oct. 1.
Among its many findings, the report also makes note of the lack of local cameras available to monitor the wild lands for fires. Larkin, the Santa Cruz County fire chief, says efforts to get more cameras are currently in the works.
“We’re working with some partners to try and get those cameras in place as soon as we possibly can because we know we’re underserved here in the county,” he says, “and we know how much of an asset those cameras could be in at least confirming that we have a fire and then also assisting with the long-term effects of what that fire looks like.”
For more information on the Santa Cruz County Grand Jury, including how to apply, visit co.santa-cruz.ca.us/Departments/GrandJury.aspx. The deadline to apply and serve on this upcoming year’s Grand Jury has been extended through Aug. 14.
Santa Cruz County needs to adopt a single countywide fire dispatch center like what Lake and Nevada Counties have done.