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Read more about the North Coast wildfire recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires


This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

A work crew in white hazmat suits Monday filled dump trucks with massive concrete chunks and other debris, closing a major chapter in the recovery of Coffey Park.

The workers, one operating a yellow excavator and another driving a compact dozer, loaded the last remains of a northwest Santa Rosa home that had been incinerated last fall by the Tubbs fire.

The lot on Sansone Drive where the workers labored once held a pale green, ranch-style house where shade trees lined the sidewalk. But federal officials said the property was noteworthy Monday because it was the last in the neighborhood from which their crews would shovel up fire debris.

Neighborhood and city leaders Monday applauded the completion of debris cleanup in Coffey Park, noting it has been less than four months since flames devastated the area in the early hours of Oct. 9.

“Each time we get to one of these points, it just shows that progress is being made,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey. “We’re on our way.”

Some residents last fall questioned the wisdom of the government-sponsored cleanup. But Coursey said the results showed it offered a faster method to remove the debris “so we can get to building as quickly as possible.”

The October wildfires were the costliest in U.S. history. They killed 40 people and destroyed more than 6,000 homes in a four-county region.

As of Friday, the Army Corps of Engineers had completed 58 percent of what officials are calling the largest wildfire cleanup in state history.

The agency counts its work in Coffey Park as a major accomplishment.

“Completing debris removal in Coffey Park is a significant milestone for the overall program, and for the more than 1,200 property owners in that area,” Corps spokesperson Nancy Allen said in an email.

“They will be able to move forward with rebuilding efforts, and our crews will be able to mobilize to other focus areas to make significant progress there.”

The Corps and its contractors cleared debris from 1,228 properties in Coffey Park, Allen said. That is better than 90 percent of the more than 1,300 homes burned there.

For the remaining lots, individual property owners opted to conduct and pay for their own cleanup, normally with proceeds from their fire insurance policies.

Most Coffey Park properties aren’t ready for rebuilding. The lots have to be graded before foundations can be poured.

Also, the neighborhood still has hundreds of large and small dead trees that must still be removed.

Even though the Corps contractors have finished carting off residential debris in Coffey Park, they still need to remove a relatively small number of burned cars still cluttering lots, Allen said.

Workers also may need to scrape away more dirt from lots if test results show the soil remains contaminated.

For the region to date, the Corps reports clearing debris from 2,809 properties from a total of 4,885 scheduled for cleanup in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. Workers have trucked away more than 1 million tons of debris, an amount that exceeds the weight of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The agency expects to complete its cleanup work by March, Allen said.

Along with the Corps, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency worked in Coffey Park this winter on asbestos removal — investigating homes built before 1989.

Read more about the North Coast wildfire recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires


This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

The EPA teams examined 311 homes in the neighborhood and removed materials from 69.

That work ended last week.

“We all applauded in appreciation of that milestone,” said Steve Calanog, the EPA’s incident commander for the wildfires.

EPA crews have found asbestos in housing shingles and siding, floor tiles, grout and insulation used in heating systems.

Of the nearly 2,000 homes the agency has surveyed in the county, three dozen properties were at least 100 years old, Calanog said.

In those cases, he said, archaeologists were available to help crews conduct their work “with respect and care.”

Jeff Okrepkie, chairman of the Coffey Strong neighborhood rebuilding group, said the debris cleanup was a major hurdle for property owners seeking to reconstruct their homes.

That made Monday’s news all the more noteworthy.

“I think it’s great to hear because it’s not just the first step taken,” Okrepkie said.

“It’s the first step completed.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.