Lessons From the North Bay Fires

As the massive, multi-agency clean-up from the NorCal fires continues, keeping track of what is going where is a critical preparation for the next inferno.

The seven large wildfires that ravaged the Northern California counties of Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma in October destroyed almost 11,000 structures across 250 square miles, and left behind the largest debris removal operation since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

But while the 1906 clean-up consisted largely of shoveling burned timbers and blackened bricks into the Bay, the 2018 waste management plan is a billion-dollar contract operation overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and directly managed by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers. It’s an intense, structure-by-structure process, as selective as the fires that either destroyed homes and businesses or chose to move on.

The latest estimates are that close to 2 million tons of debris — nearly two Golden Gate Bridges worth — will be piled into landfills all across the Bay Area by the project’s end in April. (There’s hope, that up to half of it could be recycled, like crushing old concrete to mix as new concrete.)

Now that wildfires are a year-round threat for the Bay Area, tracking this massive clean-up will help us understand what to take and what to leave after in the wake of such devastation.

The first step in this complicated process, begun while some embers were still hot in October, was the careful removal of household hazardous waste by the EPA, mandated and funded by FEMA once the federal government opened up disaster relief funding.

“What we do in the aftermath of fire is remove hazardous waste in houses so it doesn’t get into the ‘waste stream,’ so to speak,” Rusty Harris Bishop, EPA’s remedial project manager, tells SF Weekly.

In this case, hazardous wastes include paints, solvents, herbicides, pesticides, automotive gas cylinders and propane tanks.

“Propane tanks and pressurized objects could be damaged in a fire,” Bishop says. “Tossed around in trucks or dumpsters, they could explode.”

In this first phase, workers contracted by the EPA wore Tyvek suits and gloves for protection, continually testing air and soil quality to meet California’s high level of environmental safety.

Deciding what is debris and what is not on such a small scale can become tricky, as not all soils across these counties are the same. For example, some soils may have naturally occurring arsenic or asbestos, so a baseline test of soils outside the burn zone must be established.

Likewise, not every house’s remains are the same, with some having more hazardous wastes than others. “Batteries was a big category of waste from large farms because they had more vehicles, which mean more batteries,” Bishop explains.


Fire flares up near a gas line at the Journey’s End mobile home park in Santa Rosa as multiple fires break out across Sonoma, Napa and other North Bay counties. (Jessica Christian)

Teaming up with the EPA is CalRecycle and other state and federal agencies such as the California Office of Emergency Services, or Cal OES. Once these hazardous materials are collected, how — and where — to move them becomes the priority.

“We have to get this stuff out of people’s lives as fast as possible,” Lance Klug, public information officer for CalRecycle, says.

Toxic ash from this complex urban interface could include everything from copper and chromium from treated wood, to lead, mercury and cadmium from consumer electronics. To safely transfer it to hazardous waste dumps, these elements are enveloped in a “burrito wrap,” a plastic cover to ensure ash doesn’t spread during transportation.

The second — and, hopefully, final — life of this waste begins and ends at these specialized dumps. Sprinkled throughout the Bay Area, the hazardous waste sites are lined with thick layers of hard plastic and textile, as well as engineering controls to keep the landfills secure. They’re also carefully monitored to ensure no waste leeches out during heavy rains.

Once the EPA finished the hazardous waste removal late last fall, the Army Corps of Engineers moved in to take care of larger debris. According to Rick Brown, Northern California Wildfires public affairs officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, that mostly means concrete. And, just as different structures can contain different levels of hazardous waste, concrete damaged by fire differs from house to house.

“In the Fountain Grove area [of Santa Rosa], we had custom homes using specific materials,” Brown says. “In Coffee Park, we had slab foundations that didn’t go very deep, as opposed to places on hillsides that need deeper supporting foundation and wing walls, which uses a lot more concrete.

“We’re getting into the home stretch,” he adds, “but the hillside custom communities and outlying areas that we can’t get access to because they have a burned out-bridge, for example, are providing challenges.”

The remainder of a front porch sits amongst rubble off Sleepy Hollow Drive in Santa Rosa (Jessica Christian)

And even transportation is tricky: It can be a “very hazardous situation” with so many trucks moving debris as fast as possible, so the agency requires brake checks by the truckers on a daily basis.

Although it’s important to remove debris from these ravaged areas, fire ecologist Dr. Chad Hanson warns that wildfires have naturally occurred in these ecosystems for ages, so much of the ecosystem — especially oak trees — have adapted to withstand wildfires.

“It’s very common for people to cut down trees thinking they have no value, which is not correct,” Hanson says. “We have to wait until April or May to see any post-fire growth.”

Although Hanson knows that trees that pose a hazard must be removed, he warns residents in these areas to think twice if a debris company knocks on their door offering to remove trees that look dead.

“Our forest practice laws are old and haven’t caught up with the science of post-fire growth,” Hanson says. “Many of these trees that look dead really aren’t, and the ones that look dead are really useful to animals.”

In addition, some companies seeking a quick buck are luring tenants into hiring them, and offering substandard results. On Feb. 22, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that the Contractors State License Board opened up a criminal investigation against Koke Clean-Up. Koke has already been paid $19,500 for tree removal from a Glen Ellen property.

“Landowners can be misled that they have a real problem with these trees, but the logging companies make out like bandits and take advantage of a lack of info people have on ecology, “ Hanson says. “Dead trees are not waste.”

Whether it’s hazardous waste, recyclable material, or living matter, questioning what fire leaves behind has become essential for the Bay Area. And another less than average winter rainfall insures we will be asking these questions again in the very near future.

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