FEMA announced Thursday the North Bay fires rank 4th on their list of disasters in terms of the amount of destruction and the number of lives taken in a single incident. The urban wildfires have killed at least 42 people and more than 50 remain on the Sonoma County Sheriff’s missing persons list.
As containment of the fires tops 85 percent, the attention now turns to the clean up and recovery for thousands of families, beginning with the removal of thousands of tons of toxic debris.
Santa Rosa city council member Chris Rogers wrote in a Facebook post, “Clean up should begin within the next few weeks with a goal of being done by early 2018.” He added that homeowners will need to a sign a “’right of entry form’ that will allow the clean up” of their properties. The city has entered into agreements that will allow the Army Corps of Engineers to handle the first wave of toxic testing and cleanup, and then CalRecycle will take over the secondary wave of clean up to get up to California’s standards. Rogers said, “They will properly document the home for insurance/FEMA purposes, and the cleanup will be 100 percent reimbursed.”
He said homeowners “retain the right to clean up their own property through private, certified contractors” but then they will bear the liability and “FEMA is unlikely to reimburse them for the entire cost of the cleanup.”
Yvette Escutia and her 2-year-old son Juan Carlos were among seven family members living on Dennis Lane who fled with nothing as flames raced through their home in Coffey Park. Three generations in one home, now hoping to return and salvage anything they can.
“It's just memories that we would like to get. My wedding ring is still there, my charm bracelet that my husband gave me when my son was born. Little things like that. We know we're not going to be able to repair anything that was burned or anything but I wish that, I hope that my ring is still there,” Escutia said.
But many of the homes in Coffey Park are now red-tagged, warning people to keep out because the buildings are uninhabitable. Some signs also instruct people to keep several feet away from structures like chimneys or unstable walls.
Still, Sean Smith with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services understands many residents will want to comb through the remains of their homesites. He instructs them to be aware of hazards, such as holes they may step into under the rubble.
“When people get back they have to be careful about what they touch and expose people to, the ash and chemicals that get on them,” Smith said. “Don’t take kids or animals they’re smaller, closer to the ashes they’re more vulnerable.”
He advises people to wear boots, gloves, and masks, and then bag those items before getting back in the car.
Smith could not offer an exact timeline for the toxic cleanup but says the state is waiting for contractors to arrive. He said cleanup efforts will be prioritized based on location.
“We’re gonna look at waterways, the environment, other facilities, [is it a] daycare center, hospital, school, elderly folks home? We want to clean around those properties first.”
Escutia, who has asthma, worries about the longterm health of her family. More than 6,500 structures burned in Sonoma County, leaving behind an unknown toxic cocktail of lead, asbestos, plastics and chemicals.
“It will all have to go to a toxic dump somewhere. We just don’t know what’s in there,” John Buchanan said. The retired fire chief with 50 years of service now works with Statewide, a contractor specializing in decontamination and fire damage reconstruction.
He said it’s critical to get the cleanup done efficiently and thoroughly, especially with the impending rainy season.
“Rain’s coming. It’s gonna push that stuff farther down and percolate in the soil we’re concerned about that.”
Buchanan said he’s impressed with Santa Rosa’s efforts to fast track construction by streamlining the permitting process for rebuilding. He said homeowners should feel confident the cleanup will be managed properly but that people who are concerned about potential toxins left behind can expect to pay $300 to $1,000 for further environmental testing by private companies.
Now staying with friends in Petaluma, Yvette Escutia said she hopes the recovery efforts will go smoothly, and quickly. “I would like to stay here because I’ve been here my whole life.”