Damage from the most destructive wildfires in California’s history has been sudden and widespread. But as the immediate needs of those affected are still being addressed, government officials have begun to tackle a more invisible, long-term consequence of the damage: millions of tons of hazardous waste and debris.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Regional Administrator Bob Fenton estimated during a recent media call that at least 10 million tons of debris remain along the charred trail that the Camp, Woolsey and Hill fires burned across Butte, Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Like a bent candle burning at both ends, the state had fires smoldering in the north and south for nearly three weeks, displacing at least 150,000 people and ravaging more than 20,000 properties.
Shortly after the fires were contained in late November, numerous agencies have joined to begin what they call an “unprecedented wildfire cleanup effort” that they estimate to cost at least $3 billion. Under the leadership of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and local governments, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle); Butte, Los Angeles and Ventura counties; the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC); the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and other federal, state and local partners have partnered to implement a two-phase state-managed debris removal programs to clear waste and restore burnt properties.
Fenton and Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), joined in the phone call Tuesday to discuss the cleanup efforts.
“One of most important things we can do in an event like this, outside of making sure people’s needs are met, is beginning that process of removing the debris,” Ghilarducci says. “The sooner we can get it addressed and out of the way, the sooner the long-term recovery and building can begin.”
The first phase of the cleanup, which began Dec. 3, involves crews managed by DTSC and the EPA sifting through rubble and ash to remove remnants of household hazardous waste, such as paints, cleaners, solvents, oils, batteries, pesticides, compressed cylinders and tanks and easily identifiable asbestos. The crews are working to clean up contaminated debris as quickly as possible to minimize exposure to emergency personnel, the public and workers involved in restoration efforts. Officials estimate this phase will take four to six months to complete.
After all household hazardous waste is removed, phase two will begin, where CalRecycle-managed contractors will remove the remaining asbestos, assess and document properties and remove contaminated soil, ash, metal, concrete and other debris to restore properties to their pre-fire conditions. A core group of engineers will support the CalRecyle contractors to help facilitate the segregation and coordination of concrete, steel and other recyclable materials, Ghilarducci says. The cleanup is free to property owners, but to participate in phase two, owners must grant cleanup crews access to their property by returning signed Right-of-Entry agreements to their local government.
Phase two preliminary damage assessments started Nov. 28, and Ghilarducci estimates final debris removal will begin Jan. 7, with the hopes of trucks starting to move loads Jan. 14. Challenges are plenty in the cleanup effort. Properties in the south tend to be larger and have more debris overall, while those in the north are older homes that tend to contain more hazardous material. The geography of the state also poses challenges, as equipment needs to squeeze through tight roads or tread up steep mountains to reach damaged sites.
Fenton and Ghilarducci both hope to have the cleanup effort complete within a year.
“While the mission is enormous within the three counties, we’re going to make efforts to move as fast as possible,” Ghilarducci says.
While cleanup after natural disasters have become more commonplace across the country, wildfire cleanup is a monster almost exclusive to the west coast, leaving little precedent to look to for best practices. Fenton and Ghilarducci say they’re applying lessons they learned from last year’s cleanup efforts after the wildfires in Sonoma County, which destroyed only half as many properties than this year’s fires and generated an estimated fifth of the waste.
One of those lessons is putting more effort into streamlining initiatives involved in the cleanup. Last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was eventually asked to lead cleanup efforts after nearly a dozen wildfires stretched state resources too thin for them to continue doing it alone. But this year, Ghilarducci says state officials will manage the cleanup while sharing costs with state and local authorities.
Last year's cleanup conducted by the U.S. Corps brought about another lesson for state officials. Last year, residents complained of numerous issues with their properties once they returned to them, from over-excavated lots to damaged driveways and septic systems that eventually cost the OES millions to repair. Earlier this year, Ghilarducci sent a letter to the U.S.Corpsdisparaging the organization for its work.
However, during the phone call Tuesday, Ghilarducci said those issues have since been resolved. To avoid similar issues moving forward, Ghilarducci said the state will hire auditors and monitors to watch over the second phase of cleanup in hopes of cutting down on excess removal.
“Last year’s fires were a monumental challenge for all of us, including the Corps. We asked the Corps to come in and do a tremendously complicated job,” Ghilarducci says. “...The good and bad of it all is that we had to go through last year’s horrendous event together, but we learned a great number of things from it.”