New ordinance gives Grizzly Flats residents a chance to build their own affordable housing after Caldor Fire

Grizzly Flats resident Matt Nunley with his sawmill in 2024. (Photo by Ken Magri)

By Ken Magri

In fall 2021, the Caldor Fire scorched 221,800 acres across the Sierra Nevada and incinerated two-thirds of the El Dorado County town of Grizzly Flats. 

While several efforts to replant conifer trees throughout the Caldor burn scar have continued since 2022, rebuilding almost 500 structures destroyed in Grizzly Flats is more challenging due to high construction costs and restrictive county codes. But a new ordinance gives residents hope of moving out of their camper-trailers and into houses they built themselves. 

In May, El Dorado County Board of Supervisors passed an owner-built ordinance that allows uninsured wildfire victims in Grizzly Flats, Fresh Pond and Volcanoville to build tiny houses without costly permits and building fees. The ordinance gives lot-owners latitude in designing homes specific to their area’s needs by using reclaimed lumber from their own land. It also approved wood stoves and generator-provided electricity, common needs in the Sierra.

Introduced by El Dorado County District 2 Supervisor George Turnboo, the ordinance was inspired by Butte County’s Title 25 Housing and Community Development ordinance passed after the 2018 Paradise Fire.

“Our [El Dorado] Title 25 program could be a model for future disaster recoveries in California,” said Turnboo. “The biggest thing is that our Title 25 program will be more cost effective and residents can remain on the properties they own, so that they don’t have to sell their properties and move away.” 

Matt Nunely built a storage shed on a lot where his neighbor lives in a camper trailer. (Photo by Ken Magri)

Grizzly Flats resident Matt Nunley owns a small sawmill and has already built storage sheds for his neighbors. He volunteered to convert his shed design into a tiny house prototype. 

“With our own lumber, we can build a 700-square-foot house for $50,000,” Nunley said. “I just want to build one good example for everyone else.” 

Water hookups and septic tanks, still working on available lots, will be inspected. Nunley said he also needs to certify that the salvaged lumber can withstand the weight of winter snows. “They allowed Paradise builders to do that certification on their own,” said Nunley. “We’re hoping for the same.”  

When it comes to replanting efforts after the Caldor Fire, these have been aided by a $20 million partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the nonprofit organization American Forests. Their Reforestation Pipeline Partnership germinates conifer seeds to replant on millions of acres over the next several years.

The partnership actively seeks citizens to become voluntary seed finders by downloading a PDF brochure, “The California Cone Hunters Pocket Guide.”

This year, 47,000 replanted seedlings, “a mixture of conifer species including ponderosa pine, sugar pine, douglas fir, incense cedar and white fir,” are covering 275 acres in Grizzly Flats, according to a March USFS Facebook post.

In other burn scar areas along Highway 50, the loss of canopy allows ponderosa pine and incense cedar seedlings to germinate on their own. This alludes to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that “in areas that were conifer forest prior to the Caldor fire, 42% of the landscape had a high (40% or more) likelihood of natural regeneration in the near-term.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.

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