Heavy equipment rumbled across Santa Rosa’s devastated Coffey Park neighborhood Wednesday as a massive cleanup unfolded in the wake of October wildfires that killed 24 people in Sonoma County and destroyed more than 5,100 homes.
Private contractors working 12-hour days, seven days a week swarmed the debris-strewn lots, piling charred wood, metal and concrete onto waiting dump trucks running near constant loops to the county landfill. The clamor continued into the night under the glare of giant floodlights.
Countywide, crews from a handful of companies have removed 209,000 tons of debris from 595 properties including those in Fountaingrove, Larkfield-Wikiup and Coffey Park, the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood where more than 1,000 homes were lost.
The goal is to complete the job by early next year, laying the groundwork for rebuilding.
“We’re moving at a pretty good clip,” said Patrick Bloodgood, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency overseeing the project.
But there is still much work to be done. An additional 3,900 properties await clearing in a process that takes about a day per lot.
Hiccups have come in the form of strained capacity at the Mecham Road landfill, causing some backups, and bidding for a second federal cleanup contract, resulting in a brief tapering of work hours this week, Bloodgood said.
The first contract covering a period starting Nov. 2 was for $200 million.
“It’s going to take more to completely remove the debris from this disaster,” Bloodgood said.
And there are holdouts. Santa Rosa officials said the owners of about 85 parcels have neither signed up for federal debris removal, which had a Nov. 13 deadline, nor submitted plans to clear the properties themselves. The City Council is holding a special meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday to discuss declaring those properties public nuisances and establishing a process to ensure debris is safely removed.
Paul Lowenthal, the city’s assistant fire marshal, said the city could eventually clear the land itself and send the owners the bill. But other aspects of the recovery — from stringing new power lines to felling hundreds of scorched trees — are proceeding as planned, he said.
“It’s a massive coordinated effort to help the community recover as quickly as possible,” Lowenthal said.
The wildfires that broke out Oct. 8 were the most destructive in U.S. history, consuming 137 square miles in Sonoma County alone and carving a path through dense residential areas. The most damaging blaze, the Tubbs fire, roared from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, jumping Highway 101 and leveling Coffey Park. Cleanup crews from a half-dozen private contractors have descended on the neighborhoods, many working 12 days in a row with one day off, racking up overtime.
Jess Todd, a foreman for Santa Rosa-based Ghilotti Construction Co., said his firm has cleared about 70 lots in Coffey Park and Larkfield. Each one follows a prescribed process that starts with removing charred appliances and ends with grading up to a half-foot of soil to take out potential contaminants, he said.
Crews are tackling the subdivisions first so “people can get back to reality” sooner, he said.
“Everybody’s getting more efficient,” Todd said.
Coffey Park resident Cliff Hollenbeck watched the bustle from the sidewalk. The retired truck driver was a young man the last time he glimpsed the bare lot where his San Sonita Drive house once stood.
It was 1986 when Hollenbeck, then 23, bought the unbuilt ranch-style house. Thirty-one years later, the home where he and his wife, Ty, raised a family was destroyed in the Tubbs fire. This week, he watched Ghilotti employees scrape away the debris, returning the site to a naked patch of dirt.
He said he plans to rebuild.
“It looks better than when it was burned,” Hollenbeck said as he watched a yellow excavator rumble across his flattened lot. “I can envision a home here now.”
Staff Writer Kevin McCallum contributed to this story.