Santa Cruz County supervisors pass CZU Fire debris cleanup ordinance

David Serna, a veteran firefighter, found himself on the other side of the fireline. He returned home to find his home destroyed in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Santa Cruz County residents are one step closer to rebuilding their homes after the CZU Lightning Complex fires in August burned more than 85,000 acres and 900 homes.

On Tuesday, county supervisors unanimously passed a debris cleanup ordinance that establishes government and private programs to help residents clear hazardous ash and soil before rebuilding their property.

"[Debris removal] is so important because the ash from the structures of these homes and other structures that were burned contain a lot of other hazardous material and end up being toxic for our environment, for ourselves, for our watersheds and water quality," County Environmental Health Director Marilyn Underwood said.

That is why the cleanup needs to be done by in conjunction with the county before rebuilding can commence, Underwood said.

The new ordinance sets up Phase 2 of debris removal, which includes general debris, ash and soil. Phase 1, which would need to be completed before that, is the removal of hazardous materials like batteries, propane tanks, paint cleaners and other items that can ignite or explode.

The first phase began in early September and was operated by the federal and state's Environmental Protection Agencies and the county's environmental health division.

Residents who completed the first phase now have two options for Phase 2: a public or private program. The public option, known also as the government option, is free to all residents whether they have insurance or not.

In order for residents to benefit from the service, they must apply online, sign a right-of-entry form and provide insurance information if applicable.

For insured residents who already paid for some cleanup like tree removal, claims should be filed with the insurance company before the county starts phase 2.

"This we know we can offer to folks, but we still don't have all the details," Underwood said. "We hope to make this available on our website and in person early next week."

Fire survivors also have the option to hire a county-approved private contractor to take care of the cleanup -- a program that residents could sign up for starting last week.

"As of this morning, we had 11 private applications for the private owner approach and we have approved nine so they can go forward," Underwood said. "We would not approve the work plan and the application until phase 1 is done so we know nine are done."

Non-residential structures smaller than 120 square feet may be eligible to skip Phase 2 and move straight to rebuilding. Residents can apply for clearance through the county website as well.

"Debris removal is the first step toward rebuilding and preventing more significant debris flows," Supervisor Ryan Coonerty said. "I know everyone wants this to happen faster ... the fact that we already have applications in, and people are moving forward is a good sign.

Underwood predicted that Phase 1 clean up would be completely done by mid-November.

To learn more about debris removal or sign up for the Phase 2 Private Contractor Debris Program, click here.

Residents can also call (415) 793-8794 to learn more about debris cleanup progress and alert crews about potential hazards on their property.

To track Phase 1 clean-up for the county, click here.