Snow slows wildfire cleanup effort in San Bernardino County’s mountain communities

Snowslows wildfire cleanup effort in San Bernardino County’s mountain communities

10 March 2008

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California, USA — Aprogram to clean up San Bernardino Mountains properties burned in last fall’swildfires has been hampered by a snowy winter, steep terrain and regulatoryobstacles, according to a report being presented to the San Bernardino CountyBoard of Supervisors today.

The cleanup, which officials had hoped to wrap up in February, now is notexpected to be finished until May, said Rex Richardson, spokesman for thecounty’s solid waste department.

The county had set a goal of 40 workdays when it approved the program lastNovember. It approved contracts on Dec. 11 to start removing debris in areas ofLake Arrowhead and Running Springs, where more than 500 homes were destroyed ordamaged in the October wildfires.

But with some parts of Green Valley Lake and Running Springs still under asmuch as 4 feet of snow in late February, work crews have been unable to get tothe properties, according to the report.

The schedule factored in weather delays, but not as many as there proved tobe, Richardson said. The mountain communities saw some of their heaviestsnowfall in years, equal to predrought levels, he said.

“We know, in reality, you can’t predict the weather,” Richardsonsaid. “You can only make your best guesses.”

Many of the properties are in steep terrain, making it harder to clear andhaul debris, Richardson said.

Those two factors increased the restrictions imposed by the state Division ofOccupational Safety and Health, known as Cal/OSHA, he said.

The agency would not allow debris removal in areas where snow was on theground and restricted the use of heavy equipment on steep slopes, according tothe report.

“Guys literally needed to have a harness and rappel by the side of thehill to see what’s going on,” Richardson said, describing one of theagency’s requirements for inspecting the sites.

Dave Stuart, executive director of Rebuilding Mountain Hearts and Lives, anorganization helping the fire victims, praised the debris-removal program.

“The county is trying to do everything they can,” he said.

According to the county report, three of nine tasks have been completed:collecting and disposing of spoiled food, removing hazardous waste and testingfor and removing asbestos from properties built before 1984.

About one-half of the owners have signed up for the debris-removal program,which required them to sign over any insurance payments they receive forproperty cleanup, according to the report. Another 31 percent have opted tohandle their own cleanup work.

The county is attempting to reach the remaining property owners to see whatthey plan to do. Those who had not contact the county by Monday will be referredto code enforcement.

Modeled after a debris-removal program used in Lake Tahoe after wildfiresthere last June, county officials said the program would help quickly andcheaply clear properties of burnt-out vehicles, crumbling foundations and fallentrees.

The supervisors said they hoped the program would allow residents to startrebuilding quickly.

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