One way or another, fire clean up begins
Sarah C. Phelps
The deadlines for homeowners with fire-damaged property to enroll in a debris removal program – government or private – have come and gone. While thousands have signed up for one or the other, hundreds of owners still have not submitted applications to notify the county of their intent to clean up their property, and the county is putting on the pressure.
As of Nov. 22, 4,514 Right of Entry (ROE) forms had been received countywide, nearly 88 percent of the estimated 5,100 homes damaged by October’s fire storm. The ROE are required from property owners who want to participate in the government-run debris removal program led by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and their local contract company, ECC.
Close to 380 “alternative program” applications have been received from the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County. The “alternative program” applications are required from homeowners opting to find their own private contractors to do the clean up. Close to 215 of those applications have been approved by the county to start work. The city of Santa Rosa, which has its own application process, has received 264 applications.
The county originally gave November deadlines for both the government and private clean up programs, but they are still accepting applications for a limited time and are approving them on a case-by-case basis.
That leaves more than 300 properties countywide whose owners have not submitted applications for any clean up program, causing what officials see as an immediate health and safety risk if the hazardous debris is “not safely removed from the property in a timely manner.”
At its Nov. 21 meeting, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved an abatement process for owners who have not voluntarily signed up for clean up.
For those sites, the county plans to send owners a letter of its own intent to clean up the property, followed by a phone call. Additionally, a notice will be posted on the property at least 10 days before clean up occurs. During that time, owners will have a chance to file an appeal. After a property is cleaned, using the same standards that the Army Corps of Engineers is using for the government-run clean up, the property owners will get another letter from the county detailing what was done and the cost they will need to pay. Unpaid, those costs could become a lien against the property.
Owners will once again have a chance file a written appeal prior to a lien being enforced.
“We need to be protective of public health and safety, also the environment. We need to ensure that when people start returning to their properties and are getting ready to rebuild, that we do not have properties that are still not cleaned and contaminated out there,” Christine Sosko told supervisors at the meeting. Sosko is Sonoma County’s Director of Environmental Health and Safety.
When will clean up start?
Clean up in Sonoma Valley is just beginning, but it has been underway for several weeks within the city limits, especially in the Coffey Park neighborhood where more than 260 homes were destroyed. The clean up effort is being called the biggest in California history.
As of Nov. 19, the Army Corps of Engineers had 71 crews working in Sonoma County, said Patrick Bloodgood, Army Corps public affairs specialist. Some of those crews have already begun moving into the Kenwood and Glen Ellen areas. Bloodgood said the crews will prioritize based on whether or not home sites are a risk to watershed areas or if there have been a lot of ROE submitted for one area. The Army Corps also leaves it up to its contractor, ECC. “They know their equipment and staffing better than we do and we leave logistics up to them.”
A typical neighborhood property will most likely take one to two days to clean up, said Bloodgood, but it could take longer for some sites, especially those with challenging topography or in the mountains. Some sites could take up to five days.
Where does the debris go?
While it’s good news that clean up is starting, the amount of debris to be removed is staggering. How to haul all that debris, where it’s going to go, and how much that’s going to cost, is not necessarily clear cut.
“Trucking and disposal are the wild cards here. It’s not a mystery how to clean up these sites,” said David Noren, manager of environmental services for EBA Engineering based in Santa Rosa. EBA Engineering has been tapped to handle a number of private clean up projects in the Glen Ellen and Bennett Ridge areas. “The big wobble I see is how much debris and ash will be generated, who will take that amount, and how much will it cost to do that?”
Of the more than 5,000 homes destroyed in Sonoma County, more than 400 of those are located in Sonoma Valley. The amount will vary depending on the property, but Noren estimates that each destroyed residential parcel could generate 100 to 200 tons of debris, including soil and recyclables.
Soil alone will be a good chunk of this debris. EBA is planning to scrape soil approximately three to six inches down (per state and county requirements) in a 10-foot radius around all buildings to clear any hazardous material. The Army Corps of Engineers has a similar policy.
Metal and concrete will be recycled. Burned cars will go to a scrap facility like Creams in Santa Rosa.
Although the county did not respond to a request for comment as of press time, Trish Pisenti, the Sonoma County’s integrated waste division manager, told the Press Democrat in November that her ballpark estimate was approximately one million tons of debris countywide would be removed from the damaged home sites, with half to be recycled and half to go to landfill.
“We are working with the county and have a list of facilities that have been approved to take the debris, with the idea that we don’t overburden those landfills,” said Bloodgood for the Army Corps. Bloodgood said the debris will be sorted on site and, depending on the material, it will be sent off to different facilities for processing. Bloodgood could not provide a list of the landfills being used by the Army Corps, but did not express any concerns about running out of room. “All debris is being handled in-state and items are being transported directly to the landfills. If we reach capacity at one of the landfills, then we would identify and work with other landfills to haul the debris to.”
Private contractors are left to find their own landfills that will take fire debris. CalRecycle has issued a list of landfills across the state that are approved to accept fire debris. CalRecycle is the agency that oversees the state’s waste management, recycling and waste reduction programs. The closest facility listed is the county’s Central Landfill on Mecham Road in Petaluma, where there are already reports of long lines of trucks and multi-hour waits.
The furthest away are landfills in Shasta and Kings counties. However, not all of the landfills listed are accepting out-of-county fire debris, specifically those in Butte and Yuba counties, who are overburdened with their own clean up process from recent wild fires there.
“We are advising contractors that they should call these facilities first before dropping anything off,” said Scott Alonso, communications manager for the county department of health services. “These facilities ultimately have the final say if they want to accept this material.”
“The biggest issue is what will [a landfill] take under their permit and how far away it is,” said Noren, pointing out that trucking, at an average cost of $125 an hour, costs money to drive and to wait in lines. “Quite a lot of money is going to disposal.”