The big cleanup begins in Kenwood and Glen Ellen
Swarms of contractors take over local debris removal
After getting off to a good start last November, the big cleanup of Sonoma County’s 5,500 burned homes was halted due to a major contract dispute. That dispute was settled, and on Jan. 18 cleanup crews started in earnest cleaning burned home sites in the Treehaven and Lawndale Road areas in Kenwood and Warm Springs Road and other areas in Glen Ellen.
Dozens of huge dump trucks lined Greene Street, waiting for the next open slot next to the huge excavators working each lot, scraping away contaminated dirt and removing debris from scorched cars, appliances and other detritus of burned homes.
It’s a huge job, according to Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson Nancy Allen, but she hopes to see all of the local area cleaned up by the end of February, with the rest of the county finished by the end of March.
An estimated 140 residences burned in Kenwood, 183 in Glen Ellen, three in Eldridge, 48 in the Mayacamas area, and 33 in Schell-Vista, according to Sonoma Valley Fire & Rescue Authority’s Fire Chief Steve Akre.
After a week of working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, there were only 63 lots left to clear in Kenwood, 68 left in Bennett Valley, and 43 to go in Glen Ellen, as of the morning of Jan. 29, Allen said.
In all, over 2,700 of the 3,953 lots the Army Corps will clean up in Sonoma County have been done. The other lots will be cleaned by their owners.
Mike Kay of Wolff Contracting, Inc., out of Santa Rosa, was supervising the cleanup at a Treehaven residence on Friday, Jan. 19. Kay kept a sharp eye on about seven people scurrying around the property, moving long rolls of wattles around the freshly scraped earth. Owner Mike Wolff is one of the busiest subcontractors.
“We have done more than 80 homes, and have another nine to go in Kenwood, maybe more,” Wolff said. More jobs are awarded as the Army Corps comes to terms with property owners who signed up to have their cleanup handled by the Federal government.
Wolff was also handed a list of over 100 homes to look at, finishing up odds and ends that didn’t get fixed the first time around.
There is a process for getting each lot cleaned. First, the owner is contacted and a cleanup plan is worked out.
“Nothing is going to happen until everybody is happy with the contract,” Kay said. A fire victim himself, he has allowed fellow workers who also lost their homes to live on his property.
“This is my 47th home and I still get choked up,” he said, obviously sensitive to the emotional stress caused by losing a home.
Then, the jobs are awarded to one of two major contractors: Burlingame-based ECC, and Florida-based AshBritt, whose initial objections to the original cleanup plans caused the nearly two-month delay.
After that, the subcontractor steps up and the job gets underway.
“First we ID the location,” Kay said, “then we check the paperwork, walk the property, and define the work plan. After that we remove materials at the house site and inside the perimeter, paying attention to ash and special areas.”
Besides the usual four-person cleanup crew, there are EPA inspectors and monitors, and FEMA and Army Corps overseers all over the sites.
EPA people, shy about talking to a reporter, nonetheless explain that they are monitoring the air quality for toxicity as the excavators and backhoes scoop out the burnt soils. Their findings determine the level of protection workers have to use on each site, from a full “moon suit” with closed breathing apparatus, to a suit with a mask, or just regular protective work gear (helmets, shoes, gloves, etc.)
A small tent sits at most jobs, with a table full of special tools, and often objects found in the debris that the owners may want. A couple of chairs are provided for crews to sit on to pull off their contaminated boots after stepping into a nearby tub full of water to sluice off the mud and dirt.
The EPA plays a more active role in the cleanup, too. They have their own crews removing any chimneys built before 1985, since most have asbestos in them. They also remove any other problem areas that test positive for asbestos or other dangerous substances.
Metals (like cars) and appliances are separated from the dirt, as is the concrete. Some concrete is left; it depends on the amount of fire damage.
The dirt is sent to the county’s central landfill near Petaluma on Mecham Road. Concrete, metal, appliances and just about anything else is heading out to a lot of different places all over the county or even out of the county.
According to Mike Wolff, when the DMV has cleared burned car hulks for removal, they can be recycled like any other metal. There are several sites around the county that cut them up and/or crush them, before sending them down the pipeline for recycling at smelters and metal refineries across the country.
Once the topsoil has been scraped down, usually three to five inches, it has to be tested again to see if all the toxic stuff is out. As many as one in four sites need to have even more soil removed, Kay said, sometimes irritating owners who don’t want to see so much dirt removed.
But at the end of the day, issues are worked out and the job gets done.
“There’s a lot of love that goes on here,” Kay said. “Everybody cares about doing this right. It’s a great program.”