Recovery

Why the Cleanup From California's Camp Fire Could Hit a Major Roadblock

A potential problem has emerged: Nearly half of the property owners in the hill country around Paradise have not given the government permission to enter their properties to do the work.

by Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee / January 29, 2019
Tammy Lee Trojanowski, 46, holds her chihuahua-dachshund outside the Federal Emergency Management center in Chico, Calif., as she talks about the Camp Fire disaster. She wasn't sure her home survived in Magalia and has been living out of her pickup truck. AP/Sudhin Thanawala

(TNS) — Saying they feel an urgency to act fast, California officials this week will launch the main phase of wildfire debris removal in Butte County, scene of November’s devastating Camp Fire.

But a potential problem has emerged: Nearly half of the property owners in the hill country around Paradise have not given the government permission to enter their properties to do the work.

County officials this week said they are making an extra push to get the word out to people who own burned property, informing them that they are required to have their land cleaned of ash and other fire debris, either through a free state-run program or by hiring their own contractor and paying for it themselves.

Preliminary cleanup has already begun for what may be a $2 billion-plus effort, said to be the largest and costliest in state history. The main work, involving a complete scraping and clearing of burned-out properties, is scheduled to begin later this week.

State officials set a Thursday deadline for property owners to agree to let government contract workers onto their property. Those who fail to sign “right of entry” forms could face extra costs if their property is not cleaned. Officials have declined to say whether they will consider extending the deadline if not enough people have signed up.

“This isn’t optional,” Butte County Economic and Community Development Manager Casey Hatcher said. “If they don’t sign the right of entry form, or sign up for the alternative form, the town or county will come through and use our nuisance abatement process.”

Hatcher said county officials have not determined when they would start declaring properties as nuisances.

“We don’t want that debris to languish on those properties,” she said.

As of Saturday, only 7,793 of the 13,952 obligated property owners had filled out right of entry forms, according to Hatcher. Another 81 had turned in forms saying they plan to take care of the cleanup themselves.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to pay for at least 75 percent of the government clean-up costs, and the state of California will fund the rest.

The low numbers of sign-ups are unusual, Hatcher said. After the Carr Fire in Redding last summer, where a much smaller number of buildings burned, 98 percent of affected property owners chose to allow government contractors on site.

Hatcher said Butte County has operated a social and news media campaign for more than a month about the cleanups. With sign-ups low, Butte officials last week began calling property owners directly.

Officials theorize that many Paradise-area residents have moved out of the county, and many have left the state, making it less likely they are paying attention to the local sign-up campaign.

Hatcher said property owners can download the right-of-entry form online at buttecountyrecovers.org and mail it in, postmarked by Thursday. Forms can also be taken to the disaster recovery center in the former Sears store at the Chico Mall or to the county center on Mira Loma Drive in Oroville.

The next and biggest phase of clean-up — involving removal of all debris from every parcel — is likely to start later this week. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, also known as CalRecycle, is overseeing the cleanup.

CalRecycle last Friday announced its intent to sign contracts with two California companies and one Florida clean-up firm, with the intent of having the first crews in the field as early as Wednesday.

ECC Constructors LLC, based in the Bay Area, was chosen to remove debris from half of the burned properties in the city of Paradise. That company is finishing cleanup work at the Carr Fire in Redding. Its bid for the job said it could do the work for $359 million.

SPSG Partners, a joint venture including Bay Area-based De Silva Gates Construction and Pacific States Environmental, is listed on CalRecycle’s website as recipient of a contract to clean the other half of Paradise. That group put its contract price at $378 million.

A third company, Florida-based Ceres Environmental Services, also doing business as Environmental & Demolition Services Group, has been listed by CalRecycle as a contractor to clean up burned areas outside the town of Paradise. That company listed a $263 million bid.

State officials say they will require those companies to take chimneys down and remove asbestos within 48 hours. “CalRecycle is eager to move forward with urgency to safely remove ash and wildfire debris from participating properties as quickly and efficiently as possible,” the department said in a press statement Monday.

An earlier $250 million contract for the project has sparked controversy: Tetra Tech Inc., the firm hired by state officials to test potentially contaminated soils on burned homesteads, is parent company to Tetra Tech EC, which has been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for faking soil samples during a cleanup project in San Francisco’s former Hunters Point naval shipyard. Two company executives plead guilty last year and were sentenced to prison.

In a press statement, CalRecycle officials said Tetra Tech has successfully handled seven of the last 10 CalRecycle debris management contracts, including the Carr Fire in Redding. The state agency said the debris cleanup program “includes daily oversight of contractors, independent testing, direct review and analysis of results, and meticulous documentation requirements at every stage of operations.”

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