Editor’s Note: The Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury completed their investigation into how local agencies handled the CZU Lightning Complex Fire and its aftermath. Below is a portion of their report. The full civil grand jury report can be read online at https://tinyurl.com/SC-grand-jury-CZU-report
We investigated the county government’s response to the needs and concerns of victims of the August-September 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire.
We focused on the accountability of the Board of Supervisors and county administration leadership to our citizens. We investigated the county’s support to the community in the aftermath of the loss of life, loss of property, and stress and anxiety felt by so many.
The communities of Bonny Doon, Davenport, Last Chance, and Boulder Creek were hit hard in this fire. Have we taken advantage of all the experiences and learnings to maximize our ability to weather the next, inevitable, disaster event?
In the early morning of August 16, 2020, a thunderstorm occurred that produced thousands of lightning strikes, resulting in hundreds of fires throughout California. There were over 300 lightning strikes in Santa Cruz and San Mateo Counties which, combined with dangerous drought conditions, resulted in the largest fire in Santa Cruz County history. This massive wildfire, dubbed the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, had devastating consequences for many of the residents of Santa Cruz Supervisorial Districts 3 and 5.
The fire consumed 63,754 acres, destroyed 1,431 structures of which 911 were single family homes, and caused the tragic death of Santa Cruz County resident Tad Jones.  Mr. Jones attempted to leave when evacuation orders came in but the one
lane road out was already blocked by the fire. He went to a clearing where Cal Fire had told residents to gather in case of a fire in order to keep the roads cleared for their trucks. When it appeared no one was coming to help, Mr. Jones tried to get out toward Big Basin. His body was found a few days later near his burnt out car. Mr. Jones had been right in one respect; no rescue vehicle made it to that clearing.  
Over 70,000 people were evacuated during this event, and nearly all of Big Basin Redwoods State Park was lost. 
Thirty-seven days after the fires began, on September 22nd, Cal Fire reported it had gotten its “arms” around the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. Four months later, on December 23, 2020, Cal Fire CZU Unit Chief Ian Larkin announced it was fully controlled. By the end, the cost to fight this fire reached over $68 million.
The damage, loss of life, disruption from evacuation, and efforts to support the victims of the fire were well publicized during the event. On October 6, 2020 the Board of Supervisors (BoS) voted to create the Office of Response, Recovery and Resilience (OR3) to respond to not only the CZU August Lightning Complex fire, but also future disasters.  An ad hoc committee led by Supervisors Ryan Coonerty and Bruce McPherson was established to monitor and oversee the implementation of the county’s recovery work over the next calendar year. There has been positive resident feedback regarding this program. The county patterned its recovery program after Sonoma County’s successful plan in the wake of their own fire disaster in October 2017.
Nothing is yet published about the performance of our government leadership in holding Cal Fire accountable for past actions and ensuring readiness for the next event.
The Grand Jury received complaints from residents angry over not fully understanding how everything went so wrong, and frustrated about feeling unheard by their local government leaders.  Many are afraid that the county is unprepared for the next event.
This disaster began in mid-August, was contained by late September, yet it took until mid-March 2021 before Cal Fire held two information sessions via Zoom.  This delay, per Cal Fire, was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges created by the stay-in-place order. Yet, the use of virtual meetings such as Zoom, was a common practice months prior to these presentations.
There was one presentation for each affected district, although the second presentation was a repeat of the first. Their purpose was to answer residents’ questions, provide in-depth information about the beginning of the fires, the progression, and the events that led to so much destruction. They included a “chat” feature for residents’ comments and questions throughout, and Q&As with the viewers after the presentations. Six weeks later, there was another Zoom townhall for San Mateo County residents.
These were Cal Fire presentations, but it was announced that the Board Supervisor for that particular district was online and listening, as well as some other county personnel. Neither district’s supervisor commented during the presentations, nor spoke at the Q&As that followed.
There were themes to the questions asked at these events, mostly surrounding the concerns about what didn’t work and what is being done to prepare for the next event. People are extremely grateful for the work done by our county fire districts, volunteer firefighting agencies, and Cal Fire. But many are also angry, and need information.
All of us need to know what our county is doing to secure needed state resources to ensure that our contract with Cal Fire provides us with the protection needed in proportion to the dangers that will certainly come our way. We all need answers to the residents’ questions: when we did the preparations recommended, when we followed the recommendations made by our district supervisors’ offices and fire agencies, why were we left to burn? And how do we know the same thing will not happen again?
The CZU Fire, and the increasing risk of more fires, represents an inescapable priority for responsible representation of our community needs.
Scope and Methodology
The function of the civil grand jury is to examine aspects of city and county governments, and special districts. Cal Fire is a state agency that contracts with the county of Santa Cruz. During fire season (May through October), Cal Fire operates as a state agency. Therefore, Cal Fire is outside the purview of the Grand Jury for the purposes of this investigation.
The scope of this report encompasses the effectiveness of the leadership of the county in their responsibility to represent county residents. We sought to answer these key questions about leadership, strategy, and communications:
- What are the concerns of the community, particularly the victims and evacuees, and do these concerns persist?
- How has the BoS communicated with our citizens and responded to the community’s concerns and complaints?
- How has the BoS stepped up and demonstrated oversight and accountability?
- How has the BoS, in turn, represented the community and held Cal Fire accountable?
- How has the BoS assured that sufficient resources are funded and available for recovery and rebuilding as well as off-season fire prevention and preparation?
- Have the lessons learned and improved preparations for the future been documented and verifiably implemented?
For this investigation, the Grand Jury performed multiple interviews of county officials and residents, reviewed resident complaints, and attended three virtual Community Meeting events. We also requested and examined several documents provided by the many county agencies involved in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire and its aftermath. We researched media articles, online publications, and we examined the practices of other counties that have also experienced devastating wildfire events.
Due to a possible conflict of interest, one juror was recused from all parts of this investigation.
Our government has an obligation to serve its citizens by assuring that risks are understood and managed, that resources are maximized within financial constraints to actively mitigate foreseeable risks, and that the needs and concerns of the public are recognized and satisfied.
[The full report can be found online at https://tinyurl.com/SC-grand-jury-CZU-report]
Case for a Greater Board of Supervisors Communication and Advocacy Role
We recognize and commend the bravery of the many firefighters who put their bodies on the line fighting this horrible fire.
A life was lost and property was destroyed by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. The residents whose lives have been devastated were, and are, justifiably indignant over the lack of leadership from their elected leaders.
Our county’s residents rightly continue to express doubt and dismay about their devastating experiences and the ability to withstand future fires.
The BoS has the obligation to serve the public interest by conducting a thorough review of Cal Fire, as well as contributing county departments, and producing a comprehensive lessons learned document.
The BoS should allow time and energy for the necessary commitment to listen to the public, and they should collaborate and advocate for a higher state of preparedness for the inevitable fires in the coming seasons.
The BoS’ interest and focus on fire risk must intensify. These discussions must elicit and rely on facts and data, as well as opinions and sentiments. The BoS is in the position to advocate for the community to hold Cal Fire accountable and to prepare for an uncertain and dangerous future.
F1. Residents are still concerned about response, evacuation, and future preparation in the aftermath of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. They are understandably irate. The supervisors, elected to their positions by our community, fail to recognize that they are responsible to adequately address these concerns.
F2. There was a marked difference in content and depth of analysis between Cal Fire’s Virtual Community Meeting presentation given to San Mateo County and the two given to Santa Cruz County. The discrepancy is disappointing and not acceptable.
F3. The Board of Supervisors did not adequately respond to their constituents’ concerns and questions.
F4. The Board of Supervisors has not held Cal Fire accountable for their lack of analysis of their performance in the CZU Lightning Complex fire.
F5. No provision exists in the current contract between the county and Cal Fire to develop after-action reports during the non-fire season.
F6. The Board of Supervisors’ responses to the Findings and Recommendations of the 2020 Ready? Aim? Fire! report show a lack of engagement with the material and a lack of understanding of their role as advocates for the county.
F7. The adequacy of resources for firefighting in the future is questioned due to uncertainty of mutual aid assistance, deployment and management of volunteer companies, and availability of funding.
R1. In the next 30 days the Board of Supervisors should conduct an investigation to challenge Cal Fire on their preparation for future fire events, Cal Fire’s response to the CZU Complex Fire, and give satisfactory answers to all residents’ questions and concerns as documented in this report. (F1, F2, F3)
R2. In the next six months the Board of Supervisors should adopt a formal policy for handling and logging resident complaints and requests for information. (F1, F3)
R3. Within the next six months, the Board of Supervisors should require that Cal Fire produce timely after-action reports for all major incidents. (F1, F2, F4, F5)
R4. In the next 90 days the Board of Supervisors should direct staff to produce a lessons-learned document for the public summarizing their investigation of Cal Fire and an action plan detailing how preparation for future fire events and response will be improved. (F1, F2, F4, F5)
R5. The Board of Supervisors should revisit its responses to the Grand Jury’s 2020 Ready? Aim? Fire! Report, and rewrite their responses by December 31, 2021 in a document posted on their website to demonstrate hands-on engagement and better preparation for the next fire season. (F6)
R6. Within six months the Board of Supervisors should direct staff to advocate for additional funding for fire preparation and prevention resources from the state of California. (F7)
C1. The County Office of Response, Recovery, & Resilience has done an excellent job of providing information and resources on the website.
C2. The County Office of Response, Recovery, & Resilience has developed an excellent capability for expediting permitting and rebuilding.
All photos courtesy of Kevin Painchaud