Driving up the winding road that leads to Last Chance Road, I miss my left turn.
First, I’m distracted by the view in my rearview mirror as I ascend to the top of the hill. It’s a pristine, cloudless day, and I have a clear view of the hills that tumble into the expansive ocean. Second, I am out of service, so Google Maps fails to alert me that I passed the turn.
Luckily, I notice that I am veering off my blue line and driving into the gray, according to Google Maps, so I make a quick turn in the middle of the road—it’s the middle of the afternoon, and I haven’t seen another car since I turned onto the road up the the hill 20 minutes ago.
My eyes scan for a road sign labeled Last Chance, but I don’t see any indication that such a road exists. I do see a tractor, and construction workers dressed in bright orange vests pouring concrete onto a road that leads off into the direction Google Maps wants me to go, so I take a chance. Behind them, I see Creedence Shaw, who has organized my visit, talking with another man a few yards down the road.
“So secretive they even took down the road sign,” Shaw jokes.
The people who live on Last Chance Road have a reputation for being protective of their community. That’s why I, along with Good Times photographer Tarmo Hannula, hop into the jeep of former Last Chance resident Toni McAuliffe, who is our chauffeur for the day.
People living on Last Chance road can easily spot outsiders. “Tight-knit” is the phrase that every resident I interview uses to describe the community here. Every year before the CZU fires in 2020, the community held annual barn dances that every neighbor attended. The community had its own schoolhouse, and hired teachers to teach the kids living here; all three of McAuliffe’s kids went to school there at some point. Both of these structures burned during the wildfire.
Once, McAuliffe tells us as we drive, a car veered off the road and fell a few feet down into a ravine. Because the fire marshall can take nearly 40 minutes to drive out, McAuliffe, along with a dozen other residents, came to the rescue, lowering a rope for the woman trapped in the car to use to climb out.
Living out here, McAuliffe says, you have to rely on your neighbor to survive.
All that is to say that everyone who lives on this road knows everyone else who lives on it. Every car that we pass on our way into the heart of the community glides to stop, and Toni will roll down her window to say hello. More times than not, the cars will idle next to each other, the engines humming underneath the conversations.
“Our houses out here, they aren’t close together,” McAuliffe says after wrapping up another conversation with a passing driver. “But we’re close.”
McAuliffe moved to Last Chance with her husband 30 years ago. She and her husband loved living in the hills and amongst the towering trees so much, they would commute an hour each way into Davenport for work.
It was only after their home burned down during the CZU Lightening Complex Fires in 2020 that they were forced to move out of the community and into downtown Santa Cruz. Now, a trailer sits in a clearing where their two-story home used to be.
“We’re too old to be living like that,” says McAuliffe.
McAuliffe is, by her own admission, lucky to have the option to live someplace else. All the renters have moved, she says, but for most of the homeowners in Last Chance, moving isn’t financially viable.
The residents of Last Chance are not the only fire victims in the county stuck living in trailers and tents as they wait on building permits. Rural communities like Bonny Doon and Ben Lomand are also struggling to get cleared for permits: in Bonny Doon, the biggest hurdle is residents getting septic clearances, while in Ben Lomand people are struggling to receive geological clearances, according to Shaw and county officials.
Following the fires in Oct. of 2020, the county made multiple promises that CZU fire victims would be able to benefit from streamlined permitting processes and relaxed building codes. But the people I spoke with say a number of roadblocks are preventing residents from rebuilding.
The county even told Last Chance residents that they could be part of a pilot program that would streamline the building process, and allow them to use alternative means of construction, as long as the homes were found to be structurally sound and meet basic health and safety requirements. But because CalFire has not approved the road as fire safe, residents haven’t had a chance to put the pilot program into action. “The codes are killing us,” McAuliffe says.
The CZU Complex fire burned 86,500 acres from the Santa Cruz Mountains into San Mateo County. More than 1,490 structures were lost, and 911 homes in Santa Cruz County burned—including every single structure on Last Chance Road.
After the fires ravished Santa Cruz County, California’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), hired San Francisco-based construction company Anvil Builders Inc. to help clear debris from the CZU fire, as part of a $225 million contract. But come last November, it became clear that in the debris removal process, Anvil had caused millions of dollars in damage to county and private roads, as well as to septic and storm drainage systems. To Last Chance Road alone, Anvil caused an estimated $2.7 million in damages down 7.8 miles of the road.
That’s where Creedence Shaw comes in. Shaw works with Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, which is helping fire survivors relocate and supplement essential costs. His original job was to help homeowners with the documents and permits they need in order to start rebuilding, and this remains his guiding principle. But, he says, this has required him to do everything from being a mediator to a full-blown investigator.
“Neither Susan [True, executive director of Community Foundation] or I really could have predicted what this job would entail,” says Shaw.
Shaw has assumed a sort of liaison role, working as a mediator between residents seeking permits to rebuild after the fire and the county. But the more he learned about what happened in the Last Chance community, the more he realized that the road itself was the key to moving the building process forward.
Steve Barnes is the road manager for Last Chance Road. He is a licensed timber operator, and owns a construction company. He has maintained the road for decades, ensuring it was drivable, filling potholes and creating and caring for the culverts, which is one of the most critical components of maintaining the road.
Culverts are so crucial, Barnes says, because without them Last Chance Road would flood when it rains.
There were 34 culverts in the Last Chance community. Some, Barnes says, were burned in the fire. The others, he says, Anvil destroyed.
“The money to replace [the culverts] is coming out of our pockets. These culverts should have never been ripped out. We’ve had a tremendous amount of rain this year and before I got the critical culverts in, the roads were like creek beds,” says Barnes.
Anvil offered Last Chance $75,000 for repairs, despite county estimates that the cost of the damage was closer to $2.7 million.
So when Shaw sought to help the people of Last Chance rebuild, he quickly realized that repairing their road would be an essential first step. Because Last Chance road is a private road, finding money for repairs would be the community’s responsibility.
So he set to work.
“I looked at the damage claims. I read through the contract (with Anvil). I made public access records requests. Anvil blatantly violated its contract,” says Shaw.
More than 70 damage claims were filed by residents or residential groups. 28 were approved. The county also filed claims and appeals for 17 public roads with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Shaw has submitted public access records from Anvil and Cal OES, hoping to understand why these damage claims were denied. Instead, Cal OES returned with general information on its practices, long email chains passing off Shaw’s requests and no supporting documentation specifying the reasons behind denying some residents’ damage claims.
Cal OES did not coordinate an interview in time for print.
Luckily for Last Chance, an anonymous donation is funding the cost of repaving the road, says Barnes. But CalFire Fire Marshal Chris Walters says it needs to be wider to be accessible for fire trucks, there needs to be a secondary egress, and it needs to be paved as an all-weather road before CalFire will clear it for a permit.
All of this will cost money.
The donation was a blessing, Barnes says, but that money went to recovering the culverts that Anvil damaged, and there is still work to be done on the road and no permit in sight.
Although Last Chance residents hope that CalFire might ease its road requirements, Walters says there are county-wide road standards that must be met in order for emergency responders to reach people in need of help.
“If someone called 911 during rainy conditions and it was muddy out there, more than likely we would not be able to get an actual fire engine out there,” says Walters. “We want to be able to get to their door and render aid, and an all-weather surface road is the way we do it.”
Driving on the road to interview Last Chance residents, both Tarmo and I remark on the condition of the road: we are both surprised by the fact that it actually looks to be in great condition. There are no potholes, it is wider than most back country roads I have driven, and although it’s not paved, it also is not just a dirt road.
We pull up onto Terra Barsonto’s property, she’s gardening next to a long, make-shift greenhouse structure that sits beside a modest yurt.
Barsonto has lived on the property for decades. She is a retired school teacher, and since the CZU fires decimated her two-story home and mother-in-law unit two years ago, she has been living in some form of a tent: originally, a camping tent, but recently she upgraded to the yurt. A few months ago, her son set up an outdoor kitchen station, a stove and a standalone sink, inside the greenhouse structure.
“It’s hard to live in a tent,” says Barsonto. “I was newly retired, and I thought I had the rest of my life planned, but everything was completely disrupted. Not knowing what to do, being traumatized … I only recently was able to think about getting a yurt.”
Right now, rebuilding, for Barsonto and the rest of the Last Chance community, isn’t legally possible without the green light from CalFire.
“That’s what’s holding us hostage,” says Barsonto. “If CalFire could somehow ease up on these regulations … they’re holding us to this high standard that we can’t reach, and so we don’t have the chance to rebuild.”
Struggles Across County
Last Chance Road isn’t the only community that is still trying to rebuild, two years later.
Ann McKenzie lives in Bonny Doon, where over 100 other homes were burned, according to Cal Fire estimates. McKenzie’s home was one of the houses included in that estimate.
McKenzie and her husband lived in their home for over 34 years. Now, they have two trailers on their property, one that McKenzie and her husband share and one that her son lives in, as they apply for the permits they need to rebuild.
“It gets kind of tight,” says McKenzie, “but there’s no other option for us. And honestly, it’s worth it to live here in Bonny Doon, in the mountains surrounded by trees, where we have so many memories.”
The biggest sticking point for them as they work with the county to acquire their permits is getting their septic cleared. In the past two years, McKenzie and her husband have sunk around $10,000 on the permitting process, but you wouldn’t have guessed that from looking at their land; they haven’t been able to start the building process at all, as they apply and reapply to get their septic clearance.
McKenzie doesn’t understand why this is the roadblock that is stopping them from rebuilding. For more than 34 years, she says, they have lived without issues with their septic tank; now, the county requires they move it further away from the creek that runs near her property. Already, she and her husband will have to adhere to new building codes, like indoor sprinkles, solar panels and a litany of other updates that their home that burned in the fire didn’t have. “It’s frustrating,” McKenzie says.
She’s not alone in her frustration. The Community Foundation’s True says that building to brand new codes has been the most challenging part of the process for fire survivors.
“It’s a mismatch. These people have been here for generations,” says True. “And to now be like, ‘We don’t have the right water pressure for our sprinkler system,’ it’s trying to match the need for public safety, and the overall assurance that your home will be rebuilt.”
Michael Renner is the Director of Development Recovery Services for 4Leaf Inc, the outside agency that the county hired to help residents get their permits. He explains that the California Building Code is revised and adopted every three years. That means that over the last decade or so, the state had three separate opportunities to update building requirements.
In a lot of ways, the county’s hands are tied when it comes to easing up on those codes, especially the ones that are handed down from the state. That’s because the state has certain building codes and requirements that the county has no authority to modify.
“What the state says goes,” says Renner. “I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of differences between county and state regulations, but when the state regulations are more restrictive, then the county doesn’t have an option but to defer to the state requirement. And there is no legal mechanism to allow people to build back to an old code.”
For many of the people I spoke with, the permitting fees themselves were also daunting. According to Renner, the county has tried to pare down costs to the absolute minimum, so the hard costs were covered.
According to data that Renner shares, the average cost for permitting a 1500-square-foot home is nearly $28,000. Even with certain fees waived by the county for CZU survivors, the cost is still nearly $11,000.
Renner says that he has been involved in fire recoveries ranging from Sonoma County to the town of Paradise to Oregon, and he has never seen a county completely waive permitting fees. In fact, the only jurisdiction that he knows of that actually promised to waive its fees had to retract that promise.
“The city of Malibu initially waived fees for wildfire victims,” says Renner. “And then FEMA came in and said, basically, ‘Great, if you have the ability to waive fees, you don’t need our assistance or money, and now you need to pass that money back.’”
What’s also difficult, Renner says, is that in these more rural communities, these homes might not have been up to code or permitted to begin with.
“I would say the biggest challenge I’ve seen in Santa Cruz County is getting the non-permitted structures to a point where we can get them to receive a permit,” says Renner. Especially, he says, because many unpermitted structures were also uninsured.
“We have to ensure that homes are safe, and built in a safe environment,” says Renner. “We also have to understand that people want to get back to their homes. So there’s a balance there.”
How wildfires change a county are multifold, in ways that scientists and researchers are still trying to understand.
One study found that across the U.S., wildfires significantly lower per capita wage earnings across multiple sources of earnings data for up to two years after wildfire. But the California Council on Science and Technology found in a 2020 study that because there is no statewide, standardized methodology for identifying the costs of wildfires, it’s impossible to accurately collect data on wildfire costs. Not to mention, accurately quantifying societal losses will require substantial additional data collection and research in a number of disciplines.
Moreover, the costs associated with unquantified categories of loss (e.g., health impacts, loss of ecosystem services) may likely exceed the reported costs. For example, federal and state firefighting expenditures exceed $3 billion per year; utility wildfire prevention and mitigation costs are approximately $5 billion per year; whereas the insured property losses in three out of the past four years have exceeded $10 billion per year.
Jason Hoppin, communications director for the county, says it’s impossible to determine the cost of the wildfire across all sectors of the community, especially given that the pandemic is intrinsically tied into those costs. But on a county and city level, the wildfire wreaked havoc on budgets, and budget managers are now factoring in climate change and natural disasters when drawing up their budgets.
True has observed first-hand the ripple effect that CZU fires had economically and demographically.
“A lot of fire survivors that we helped right away after the fire were very small business owners,” says True. “Maybe they were painters, contractors, landscape architects, small farmers, massage therapists, photographers who lost their kind of tools of trade in the fire. We are losing these people.”
The residents I spoke with at Last Chance and Bonny Doon also confirmed this reality. Renters are forced to exchange the rural areas they were living in for the city. But True sees some renters leaving Santa Cruz County altogether, especially as rent continues to increase (in the past year, median rent is up 18.6% according to apartment rental agency Dwellsy).
“People who had carved out a way to live in Santa Cruz County, literally for generations, may not be able to make it here anymore,” says True. “I don’t even know what we’re gonna see yet in terms of homelessness.”
Some fire survivors know homeowners who left for other states because of wildfire concerns. Meanwhile, the homeowners who can’t afford to leave, remain. “I worry about future wildfires,” says McKenzie. “But this is my property, this is my home. Where would I go?”
‘Where would I go’ is a phrase that is echoed across many of the interviews I have with fire survivors who are rebuilding. Last Chance resident Terra Barsonto says nearly exactly that when we speak.
“This is my home, I don’t have the money to go someplace else,” Barsonto says. “Where else would I go?”
Sarah Newkirk, the Executive Director at Land Trust of Santa Cruz County that aims to find sustainable ways to protect land and wildlife, says that creative solutions exist to ensure less damage from wildfires.
In a study Newkirk co-authored, she and her fellow researcher found that by creating a managed buffer of open space around a community, losses from wildfires could be reduced by up to 30%.
“One of the biggest challenges we’re facing again, there’s just tremendous demand for more housing right now,” says Newkirk. “And with that demand, comes pushing the limits of cities further and further out into what’s called the wildland urban interface. And in those areas, the fire risk is just simply greater.”
That’s why, in addition to land management, Newkirk hopes to see cities do everything they can to utilize urban space and meet state-set housing goals.
“I would encourage cities to be really focusing their planning on areas of infill development, and creating new housing,” says Newkirk. “I don’t think that it’s a reasonable long term solution to put people at risk in order to mitigate the housing problem.”
In the meantime, Shaw continues to fight for the Last Chance community and other survivors who sustained damage from Anvil.
At the county level, Michael Renner says that supervisors have been meeting to come up with solutions for the people who are still in the throes of the permitting process—especially, he says, people living on Last Chance Road.
“There’s some ideas being floated through the county council,” Renner says. “We’re not sure of the legalities of some of the ideas that have been spit-balled, but I do know those answers could be coming fairly quickly, even later this month.”
The Last Chance Residents I spoke with are cautiously optimistic that this is the case, but careful to not get their hopes up.
As I am wrapping up my interview with Barsonto, I ask what she hopes the future holds. She is silent for a while, looking at her makeshift kitchen, her yurt and lastly at her garden, where vegetables like chard and lettuce are unfolding and a few wildflowers push through the earth.
“My main dream is to have a legal home out here,” Barsonto says. “That one day, we will have another home, and I can watch everything that burned down regrow.”