Cleanup all but done on wreckage left by Wine Country wildfires
Posted May 10, 2018 6:25 p.m. EDT
SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- More than seven months after the Wine Country wildfires sparked, raining destruction and despair across four counties, the region has nearly finished cleaning up the wreckage left behind.
About 2.2 million tons of debris have been trucked away in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, officials announced Thursday. In all, 99 percent of ruined lots have been cleared, and crews are almost finished -- almost.
It turns out the fallout from October's wildfires is more complicated than anyone ever expected, officials said, with the cleanup area being more vast than any other, reaching into difficult rural pockets and involving a dizzying array of toxins. The overall operation has become the largest and most expensive clean-up in the state since 1906, when San Francisco was razed by an earthquake that triggered fires that swept through the city.
Clearing 4,272 parcels so far has cost federal and state agencies $1.3 billion, or about $304,307 each.
``There are lots of numbers to talk about here,'' Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Corsey said Thursday. ``Remember, this isn't about numbers. It's not just about debris. This represents people's lives and memories. A lot of people lost everything they had on the night of Oct. 8.''
The wildfires, which ignited for reasons that remain unknown, carved a swath of destruction across Northern California. In the Wine Country alone, they killed 41 people, destroyed 8,482 structures and scorched 195,627 acres. Sonoma County took the brunt of it, and its biggest city, Santa Rosa, suffered most of all. Across the county, 5,253 homes burned and 25 people died.
``There's a long road ahead,'' said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. ``We want to celebrate what we have been able to achieve but assure the people we serve that we will continue to advocate for them. It's all about rebuilding people's lives.''
The debris tonnage, which would cover the equivalent of 314 square miles, was trucked to seven landfills across the region. None is in danger of running out of space within the next 30 years, officials said. Of the cleared parcels, FEMA gathered 2,600 tons of hazardous waste, including 25,000 cubic yards of asbestos, from 700 parcels.
Three agencies -- the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- did the main work toward clearing the destruction. And it was not without hold-ups. This winter, clean-up efforts stalled, stopped, then started again while a legal dispute over contractors got resolved.
All residents were given the choice to have their lots cleared for free by the corps of engineers, but some decided to instead have the cleanup done privately to preserve their foundations -- and those private cleanups are not included in the governmental figures released Thursday.
The remaining 1 percent of properties to be cleared involves getting to hard-to-reach properties, officials said. The wildfires burned hundreds of private bridges, meaning crews have to construct temporary ones to clear the lots.
``There's so much more left to do,'' said Bill Roche, federal coordinating officer for the wildfire recovery efforts. ``It all started with debris. It doesn't end with debris. We've done a tremendous job to get ourselves to this point. We are not going away, both on the debris issues and the longer-term recovery impacts that we have to address.''
Slowly, some communities are beginning the next phase. In Santa Rosa, 117 homes are under construction, another 85 have their permits and 163 are in the early stages of applying for approvals. Still, the numbers only account for about 10 percent of the homes the city lost.
``We are solidly in the beginning of recovering,'' Corsey said. ``Each new permit represents hope and faith on the part of the people who are rebuilding. But the job is not fully complete. No job this big with this many moving parts is going to be perfect and without problems.''
Officials said they hoped to conclude the clean-up effort by the end of May. In addition to the rural properties waiting to be cleared, some lots need to be regraded after having been scraped hard for cleaning, officials said.
``This is a marathon, not a sprint,'' said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. ``This is a tremendous effort. Moving forward, after the debris has been cleaned up, we are going to remain here through the process of helping our communities rebuild.''