USA – A $1.3 billion government-sponsored debris removal program is nearing completion in four North Bay counties, marking a milestone in the region’s recovery from the most destructive wildfires in state history.
In Sonoma County, which bore the brunt of the deadly October firestorms, contractors working for the Army Corps of Engineers have cleared ash, concrete and other debris from 3,798 homesites and wrapped up all aspects of the program at 3,407 sites, a nearly 90 percent level of completion.
Including 882 homesites in Mendocino, Napa and Lake counties — 311, 427 and 144, respectively — the cleanup that started in November is 88 percent complete.
State and federal officials said the catastrophic loss prompted one of the largest cleanups since the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed 80 percent of the city.
The October wildfires were the costliest in U.S. history, with insured losses approaching $10 billion in the North Bay, with 40 deaths in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties and about 6,200 homes destroyed.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said the cleanup is “a critical first step in the recovery process” but also a bittersweet experience for thousands of displaced families as reminder of the loss “of every material thing and a lot of memories.”
A staggering 1.4 million tons of debris have been hauled to landfills from Sonoma County. With an additional 276,000 tons from the other three counties, the wildfire refuse weighed the equivalent of about 600,000 SUVs.
Coffey Park, a once-vibrant neighborhood in northwest Santa Rosa, still resembles a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape. Residents fled for their lives the night of Oct. 8 when a wildfire that erupted in Calistoga raced over the mountains and across Highway 101 to incinerate homes and businesses.
But with all 1,200 homesites cleared of debris, Coffey Park community leader Jeff Okrepkie said he was heartened to hear the growl of heavy excavators replaced by the tattoo of carpenters’ framing hammers.
Some residents are still disputing details of the cleanup with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that jointly administered the program, he said.
“It wasn’t 100 percent perfect,” said Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood group. “It was a learning process for everybody.”
James Gore, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors said there were numerous “inconsistencies” in what was removed from some lots and what was left behind, calling it “a relentless, imperfect process.”
The cleanup began in November with high anxiety over the requirement that property owners participating in the government-funded cleanup agree to turn over any portion of their insurance earmarked for debris removal.
Gore was highly critical of the contract dispute between two of the private companies hired by the Army Corps — Ashbritt Inc. of Florida and Burlingame-based ECC — that delayed debris removal for two weeks.
But the supervisor also expressed pride that the “vast majority” of the work was done by local labor under prevailing wage rates, with union and nonunion workers combined.
The wages earned by cleanup workers provided “an economic stimulus to our community at a time of economic strife,” Gore said.
August Ochabauer, vice president of operations at ECC, said in an email his company cleared 2,400 homesites in the four North Bay counties. ECC became “a more intimate part of the community,” employing “a bunch of local people and a bunch of local subcontractors,” he said.
n a joint interview, OES regional administrator Eric Lamoureux and Ryan Brown, FEMA deputy federal coordinating officer, expressed satisfaction with the program, which they hope to conclude this month.
In October, Lamoureux faced a restive crowd at a press conference in Santa Rosa, where officials were peppered with questions about the insurance requirement and the removal of concrete foundations from fire-scorched lots.
In February, residents of one Fountaingrove neighborhood complained parts of concrete foundations were left in the ground on at least three empty lots, while three other lots were scraped clean of all ash, debris and concrete.
Brown acknowledged there may be cleanups that did not “reach all the objectives the homeowner wants.”
“These folks have just been dealt a devastating experience,” he said.
“When we all demobilize and go away, they’ve still got a lot of work ahead of them.”
The North Bay cleanup overlapped with demands for resources in response to the December wildfires in Southern California, the officials said.
According to the Army Corps’ report this week, there are 391 Sonoma County homesites that have been cleared by work crews but not certified as complete for a variety of reasons.
Some properties need to have additional dirt or debris removed, while others await removal of burned vehicles, completion of soil testing for contamination, installation of erosion control features or were added late to the cleanup program.
Homeowners were allowed by law to opt out of the government cleanup program and get it done on their own.
In the county’s unincorporated area, owners of 441 homesites have completed the work and 37 more private cleanups are being reviewed this week, said Christine Sosko, director of environmental health.
In Santa Rosa, 405 homeowners opted out of the government program, and all but 12 have cleared debris from their land, said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal who also heads the city’s debris removal task force.
The deadline for completing private cleanup is Monday.