County won’t sue over huge Croy Wildfire

GILROY
– Santa Clara County supervisors have recognized the pleas for
mercy coming from many South County residents, deciding in a closed
session Monday not to file a lawsuit against the owners of the
unpermitted solar power system that started the area’s largest fire
in 17 years.
GILROY – Santa Clara County supervisors have recognized the pleas for mercy coming from many South County residents, deciding in a closed session Monday not to file a lawsuit against the owners of the unpermitted solar power system that started the area’s largest fire in 17 years.

Several residents of the Uvas Canyon area where the fire began – including many owners of the 34 homes devoured by the inferno – have vehemently opposed the idea of the county suing the couple who owned the solar system, citing the couple had already suffered enough loss and guilt.

Steve Slusser battled day and night for 48 hours to save his dream home from the burning flames of the Croy Fire that eventually caused more than $75,000 worth of damage to his house. Even though his and his wife Yvonne’s lives have been “turned upside down” since the fire, he holds no grudge.

“I think it is wonderful they are not suing,” said Slusser, a resident of the 7900 block of Croy Road near the source of the fire. “These things happen, and it was not premeditated. I don’t think ruining the lives of two hard-working people would help any of us.”

The decision of the county not to take legal action does not totally clear the couple, who since the fire have walked to many of their neighbors’ doorsteps – or the charred remains of the steps – to apologize. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention, neighbors who lost their homes and insurance companies can still file litigation against the couple, county counsel told The Dispatch in an earlier report.

But Santa Clara County District 1 Supervisor Don Gage said the county is already looking forward.

“We had to ask ourselves what outcome we wanted,” said Gage, who oversees the 3,000 acres of unincorporated land charred by the Croy Fire. “We want people in this area to come into compliance with the law, and suing the (the owners of the solar system) would not accomplish a whole lot. We don’t want to set an example – we want to fix the problem.”

That problem is the large number of unpermitted homes, power and electrical systems in the manzanita- and oak-laden foothills and mountains northwest of Gilroy.

Investigators with the CDF determined that the fire costing more than $8 million to put out – half of which was paid by the county – was started by an unpermitted solar system atop the home at 7900 Croy Road.

CDF investigators could not determine exactly why the solar system malfunctioned and sparked the tragic blaze and admitted that the system could’ve been up to code.

But Gage said whether the solar system was legitimate or not, the county is now doing everything in its power to reduce the number of unpermitted structures in South County’s rural areas that existed behind a county’s turned eye for many years.

It is unknown how many of the 34 structures burned in the fire were unpermitted, Gage said.

“It was a lot more than one house (that was unpermitted),” Gage said. “We want to work with the residents here, so we are offering them amnesty. We are asking residents with unpermitted homes to come forward and apply for the proper permits, and we will not hassle or fine them.”

That sounds like a fair deal, but it should also be recognized that many of the residents living in unpermitted homes in this area were denied permits by the county, Slusser said.

Within the last five years a number of residents of the 7900 block of Croy Road had been denied permits by the county because a small bridge leading to the maze of windy dirt roads in the area was not up to county code. The residents have since improved the bridge, but not received permits, Slusser said.

“Thank God they’re being sensible about this – I’ll gladly comply with their new policy,” Slusser said Tuesday morning when informed of the county’s stance toward future permitting. “But concessions need to be made on both sides.”

Making a commitment to decreasing the number of unpermitted structures in the Uvas Canyon and Croy Road area, the county has already begun aerial fly-overs to compile accurate maps of area.

CDF crews remaining in the area until the first rains have also been reporting structures to the county, and a new Geographic Information Systems contractor hired by the county will be in place within the next few months, Gage said.

“Now is the time to approach people to get them in compliance,” Gage said. “Having a better idea of the area we are working with will help us monitor the area, but of course because of the thick trees in some areas we will never be able to see everything.”

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