Rebuilding Paradise

Features - Cover Profile

How cleanup crews are picking up the pieces of the deadliest wildfire in California history to help restore the town of Paradise.

February 13, 2019

Photos provided by the Department of Toxic Substances Control

Right before sunrise on the morning of Nov. 8, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) reported that one of its transmission lines off Camp Fire Road in Butte County had suffered an outage. Fifteen minutes later, a PG&E employee at the scene first spotted what would become the deadliest wildfire in California history.

Investigators suspect that a downed high-voltage power line and damaged equipment started the fire. Spurred on by whipping wind gusts, the fire quickly overtook the parched brush in the surrounding foothills of the Sierra Nevada, spreading the blaze to the town of Paradise, California, population 27,000, and into nearby communities at the rate of a football field per second.

Before the blaze was contained 17 days later, 85 people had been killed, more than 150,000 acres had been burned and close to 19,000 buildings were destroyed. The total cost of the fire damage was estimated at $16.5 billion.

Answering the call

Shortly after the fires were contained, a number of agencies joined to begin what they called an “unprecedented wildfire cleanup effort” that will span approximately 14,700 properties and cost an estimated $3 billion. 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 (FEMA); and other federal, state and local partners will work together under the leadership of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) to carry out the state-managed debris removal.

The agencies divided the cleanup effort into two phases: removal of household hazardous waste and removal of other fire-related debris.

The first phase of the cleanup, which began Dec. 3 and is estimated to last a total of four to six months, involves crews managed by DTSC and the EPA. These crews are specifically focused on sorting through on-site rubble and ash to remove remnants of household hazardous waste, including paints, cleaners, solvents, oils, batteries, pesticides, compressed cylinders and tanks and easily identifiable asbestos.

According to CalOES Director Mark Ghilarducci, expediency is paramount in the initial stages of the cleanup in helping facilitate an orderly and efficient process.

“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 said in a conference call Dec. 11. “The sooner we can get it addressed and out of the way, the sooner the long-term recovery and building can begin.”

Once household hazardous waste is removed from a property, the second phase of the cleanup begins.

Cleanup crews started the second phase—which involves site assessment and documentation, debris removal, erosion control measures and final inspection—Jan. 7. CalRecycle oversaw the appointment of general contractors and managing operations during this process.

The agency selected ECC Constructors LLC, Burlingame, California; SPSG Partners JV, a joint venture including Dublin, California-based DeSilva Gates Construction and Pacific States Environmental; and Sarasota, Florida-based Ceres Environmental Services Inc., doing business as Environmental & Demolition Services Group, as the primary contractors for the cleanup after a bid process that culminated Jan. 22.

ECC Constructors LLC and SPSG Partners JV will work within the city limits of the town of Paradise. Each agreement is for approximately 6,350 parcels and an estimated cost of $750 million each. Environmental & Demolition Services Group’s agreement to perform work outside the town of Paradise is for approximately 2,000 parcels and an estimated cost of $200 million.

According to CalRecycle Public Information Officer Lance Klug, each primary contractor will employ a number of subcontractors to help facilitate the cleanup.

“For the Camp Fire cleanup, we estimate each of the three prime contractors will begin with five to 10 crews each,” Klug says. “More crews will then be phased in based on logistical considerations. We estimate there may be up to 150 crews consisting of about five persons each performing debris removal when all is said and done.”

Photos provided by the Department of Toxic Substances Control

Documenting the destruction

Before crews begin removing debris during the second phase of the cleanup, they first measure and record the foundation, structures, debris, utility infrastructure and property-specific hazards on site.

Daily photographs are taken at each site and compiled with written records. These records get checked and verified by a representative from CalRecycle, CalOES or an affiliated worker from the incident management team.

Crews then obtain and evaluate soil samples to establish cleanup goals for the project while identifying and removing any asbestos-containing materials that might remain.

CalRecycle uses independent, California-certified labs for its testing and analysis.

“What’s happening right now with the first part of phase two is we’re conducting background soil samples to establish a baseline. So, we take a sample from a non-burned portion of soil in the community, and this gives us a baseline where we want to get the soil properties back to. Once the debris removal occurs, we want to make sure that the soil is restored to pre-fire conditions,” Klug says. “Samples are collected and then sent off to independent labs. These results are directly reviewed, analyzed and ultimately approved by CalRecycle. So, if there’s a soil sample that comes back and it doesn’t meet cleanup goals, then CalRecycle orders re-scraping.”

Photos provided by the Department of Toxic Substances Control

Managing the cleanup

After initial site assessment and documentation, crews turn their attention to the debris removal process, where they’ll collect and remove all burnt debris, foundations, dangerous trees and contaminated soil.

Klug says that while at least 3 to 6 inches of ash, debris and soil may be removed in a typical plot’s clearing, crews do everything possible to ensure that they aren’t over-striping the land. Daily monitoring of tonnage reports and grid testing helps the agency maintain appropriate volumes during the cleanup, Klug says. The agency also focuses on other erosion control measures to control sediment runoff and promote future vegetation growth.

For larger debris, Klug says special oversight is being conducted to ensure cleanup operations go according to plan.

“We have different companies assigned to different tasks,” Klug says. “Debris management is handled by one contractor and the actual debris removal is tasked to another contractor. This provides an additional layer of checks and balances in the field. So, contractors are not only held accountable by us, they check each other’s work as they go.”

Klug notes that every parcel of debris is appropriately categorized before it leaves the site for more comprehensive documentation.

“Debris is removed and documented specifically based on material type—debris/ash, contaminated soil, concrete or metal. There’s a slip that gets generated at the site with the debris that is verified at the disposal facility, and those tonnage reports are sent to a CalRecycle facility and checked daily by parcel to ensure there is reasonable accuracy of the material that has been removed and the cost associated with that is appropriate as well,” Klug says. “We’re tracking every single parcel by material type and by tonnage, so for a cleanup of this scope, organization is key.”

Klug says that the nature of the material being handled at the Camp Fire cleanup puts an added emphasis on safety. The agency conducts daily meetings to help make sure operations are safe and compliant with industry standards.

“We operate under some overarching principles, and at the top of the list is safety—that includes the safety of our crews, the safety of the community and the safety of the environment,” Klug says. “To ensure this safety, we take a number of oversight measures and conduct daily meetings where safety is a top priority. There’s an expectation about crews wearing the proper safety equipment, and there are decontamination zones at each site where contractors suit up and suit off. This is to help prevent any ash from getting into their trucks and going with them back home. We also have truck inspections that are conducted in accordance with Department of Transportation standards. These are expected at the outset, and then every 30 days those are checked on again.”

Photos provided by the Department of Toxic Substances Control

An ally in the community

Klug says that working with those in the community is part and parcel of the cleanup effort. He notes that CalRecycle’s presence is a fixture at community meetings as the agency aims to listen to—and address—the needs and concerns of area residents.

Participation in the debris removal program requires homeowners interested in CalRecycle’s services to return a right of entry form before work begins. Klug says that crews go out of their way to help accommodate any requests residents might have during the cleanup.

“Once CalRecycle has those right of entry forms in hand, that’s when we start formulating our operations plans,” Klug says. “On that right of entry form, we encourage people to make any notes or requests they have. If there’s maybe a wedding ring or something special that someone is missing that they knew was in a certain part of the house, our crews are not only willing to look for that, they’re happy to look for that. That’s the kind of attention and respect we try to have for homeowners.”

One of the overarching goals of CalRecycle’s community engagement strategy is to limit disruption as much as possible. That’s why the agency works to maintain a minimal footprint during operations.

“We set up air monitoring stations around the community. Those are tested before debris removal starts and monitored during the debris removal to make sure we’re not having an impact on the local community,” Klug says. “Because there are 14,000 sites to be tended to, not all are going to be cleaned up immediately, so you have to maintain those. It is important to keep the ash and debris watered as a way to keep dust from flying around. Street sweeping is another aspect that we bring to the community because these areas are essentially going to be a cleanup zone for the next year, so we want to pay special attention to maintaining the community. Finally, when we haul away debris, all of it is burrito-wrapped within plastic and placed in the back of dump trucks to prevent any debris from flying out and further polluting the area.”

Klug says that although every project is different, CalRecycle has leveraged its years of debris removal experience to help streamline the Camp Fire cleanup.

“CalRecycle has managed more than 20 debris removal operations since 2007, and, of course, we learn new things and improve our oversight processes along the way,” he says. “And because of this, these communities know and respect our work and respect the process because they know we respect them and their community. So that’s why our oversight processes are meticulous, and that results in fewer problems and complaints along the way.

Managing a $3 billion cleanup project requires careful planning and execution, but according to Klug, helping make the community whole again is CalRecycle’s biggest responsibility.

“These are families who are just trying to put their lives back together,” Klug says. “We feel that responsibility and we’re proud of the work that we do to help put these communities in a position to rebuild—all the time remembering that these fellow Californians have been through so much. Of course you want to get the cleanup done as quickly and efficiently as possible, but you’ve got to set expectations where this is going to be a long process, and CalRecycle is in it for the long haul. We’re going to be there until that last site is approved and returned to the homeowner.”

The author is the editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at