Next steps coming for debris removal
Now that the deadline has passed to sign up for government removal of debris from burned properties, it’s a matter of when the work will actually take place in Sonoma Valley.
Over 5,000 homes were destroyed in Sonoma County by the fires that started Oct. 8, with more than 400 of those located in Sonoma Valley.
According to Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority’s Fire Chief Steve Akre, data from Sonoma County Fire Services and Cal Fire estimate that 140 residences burned in Kenwood, 183 in Glen Ellen, three in Eldridge, 48 in the Mayacamas area, and 33 in Schell-Vista.
The scope of debris cleanup is staggering, the biggest effort in California history.
For about three weeks, property owners have had an opportunity to fill out a Right of Entry (ROE) form and submit it to the county. The ROE allows a state and federal government-coordinated effort to come onto a property and clean up all the fire-related debris (including trees in a debris field, cars, foundations, etc.)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the agency leading the actual cleanup work.
For those uninsured, the work is done for free. For those with insurance, reimbursement will be sought from the insurer depending upon how their policy deals with debris removal.
Numerous public meetings were held throughout the county to answer the many questions people had about the process and the language of the ROE, especially regarding the indemnification and hold harmless provisions.
State and federal laws require that a property owner agree not to sue any governmental entity for harm associated with debris removal.
Sonoma County Counsel Bruce Goldstein acknowledged at a recent informational meeting at Dunbar School on Nov. 8 that the ROE form was, “not a particularly well-crafted document,” but was one that had to be used.
Any risk to the landowner about the cleanup agreement, said Goldstein, was “pretty remote, and the removal of debris is very certain.”
The deadline to turn in the ROE was Nov. 13. As of press time, over 80 percent of the 5,130 burned residences had submitted the form. County officials have to review the submitted forms, and once approved, distribute them to the Army Corps of Engineer cleanup teams of contractors.
Debris removal has already begun in the Fountaingrove and Coffey Park areas.
Before debris removal work, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is required to go through every burned out site and remove household hazardous wastes such as batteries, paints, pesticides, and propane tanks. According to Thomas Kempton, Public Information Officer for FEMA, about 75 percent of Sonoma County properties have already been inspected by the EPA.
The Army Corps has about 30 teams working in the county, and there are plans to add more. Property owners will get a phone call from the Army Corps at least 24 hours before a cleanup, and homeowners can either be on site or not.
Currently, the average time to clean up a property is three days, according to Army Corps spokesman Rick Brown. Brown said it is hoped, weather permitting, that work on all four counties affected by the fires will be completed by early 2018, so rebuilding can start in the spring.
Cleanups will occur seven days a week, including holidays.
Scheduling of where to work is partially dependent upon whether or not signed ROEs are grouped in areas, so that work can be done more quickly and efficiently, said Brown.
For those property owners who did not choose to submit a ROE form for the government-sponsored cleanup and are pursuing private cleanup measures, a different form has to be submitted to the county.
Those choosing to clean up their properties on their own are required to meet the same standards for removal, transport and disposal of materials that are being followed by the Army Corps.
The deadline for turning in the private cleanup form is Nov. 22.
For property owners who choose not to clean their parcels at all, the county would likely begin an abatement process at some point, which could result in liens.
For those who have not yet signed up for assistance from FEMA, there is a deadline of Dec. 11 to do so. There is a Sonoma Valley Disaster Recovery Center at the Hanna Boys Center, 17000 Arnold Dr. The center is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.