Rubble from massive Sonoma County wildfires is prepped for road, home construction

As out-of-control wildfires smudge skies across the Golden State with smoke once again, some local businesses are still working hard on recycling materials from areas of the North Bay that burned last fall.

In June, about nine months after the fires burned in the North Bay, Pruitt Industrial Park in Windsor in Sonoma County got its last official load of fire debris from an Army Corps of Engineers program, said Kristyn Byrne, the 30-acre park's property manager.

For months, one of the park's 40 tenants, Pacific Recycling Solutions, has been turning burned debris into useable building materials.

Owned by Nevada-based C&S Waste Solutions, the company, which also has operations in Lake County – was able to mobilize quickly in Sonoma County said Byrne, who is also a spokesperson for Pacific Recycling Solutions.

Starting in November, bulky concrete debris from the estimated 5,300 Sonoma County homes destroyed in last year's fires was hauled to the Pruitt Industrial Park by trucking contractors hired by the Army Corps of Engineers, Byrne said. Stony Point Rock Quarry in Cotati was among other companies turning rubble into recyclable material.

Just to get the material to the Windsor recycling site was an unimaginably vast logistical effort, supervised by companies like Florida-based disaster relief specialist AshBritt Environmental. Its special Santa Rosa headquarters operated from October until June, hiring and training local contractors and truckers to help haul material, the volume of which weighed twice as much as the Golden Gate Bridge.

'It's a very specialized kind of work. How do you manage two Golden Gate Bridges' worth of debris?' said Gerardo Castillo, a spokesman for AshBritt.

AshBritt's part of the hauling operation alone – 775,000 tons taken to recyclers like Pruitt Industrial Park or to landfill – required up to 550 trucks per day and employed more than 1,000 people, according to the Florida company.


'Large pieces of concrete recovered from the fires are broken up with a hydraulic breaker into smaller pieces. Those pieces are fed into a mobile rock crusher,' Byrne explained. 'A final round of grinding produces ¾-inch recycled base rock that meets CalTrans specifications for reuse.'

Metal such as rebar is also separated out during the breaking up process. It too can be completely recycled.

While base rock can't be used in building new house structures, it can be used under new sidewalks, roads, driveways and in the concrete pads underneath homes.

And doing the work locally helps in the rebuilding efforts – 'sourcing new materials to rebuild is a major concern for the construction companies working to rebuild at a fast pace,' according to Byrne.

Material being fed into the crushers comes from home foundations, patios and driveways, and ultimately it will end up supporting new structures of those types as 'CalTrans Spec 26 Class II base rock.'

The California Department of Transportation uses similar recycling procedures in breaking up old roads and highways for reuse as aggregate material underneath new asphalt.

Pacific Recycling set up its emergency response fire debris site at Pruitt Industrial Park just two weeks after the fires were contained, which required a massive logistical effort from the company. Scales for weighing trucks had to be built and housed in structures, while heavy equipment had to be bought or rented to handle the loads of material expected to arrive. Employees had to be hired to do the extra work, too.

The company also took in burned vehicles from the fires.

Material that can't be recycled, such as hazardous waste, is contained and carried out of the county or taken to landfill. But Byrne says 100 percent of the collected concrete and the metal rebar within it can be reused.

Byrne said that although the last official load from the Army Corps of Engineers has been delivered to Pruitt Industrial Park, Pacific Recycling has a bit more coming from fire-damaged areas in Santa Rosa. She said a wall which surrounded the burned out Santa Rosa community of Coffey Park also must be reduced to rubble.


As a way of giving more back to the communities devastated by the fires, Pruitt Industrial Park looked to a different sort of foundation – a philanthropic one rather than a concrete one. Byrne sought out Beth Brown, CEO of the Sonoma County Community Foundation, and asked about how to contribute to money being raised for fire relief.

'She was curious about our Resilience Fund and our strategy for distributing those funds for fire recovery. She was looking for the right beneficiary to receive funds that Pruitt Park would generate from the sale of the recycled concrete from the fires,' said J. Mullineaux, vice president of philanthropic planning for the Santa Rosa-based foundation.

The foundation set up the Resilience Fund in October last year, and Mullineaux said it has so far raised $14 million through about 7,000 donations.

Byrne called Brown and agreed that Pruitt would donate one dollar for every ton of recycled base rock it sold to the Resilience Fund, up to a possible total donation of $1 million, Mullineaux said.

'We thought the whole idea of turning something so destructive into something positive and hopeful for the community was brilliant,' he said of the pledge.

Mullineaux said the timing of Pruitt's pledge, made this summer, was particularly important, as months have passed and last year's fires have already been out of the news, particularly due to the arrival of another fire season.

'So we are grateful to Pruitt Park for stepping forward so many months after the fires to help,' he said. 'We have just started making grants to non-profits who are providing direct support to people who are trying to put their lives back together.'

In August the foundation will also start making grants around mental health services for fire victims, and with the money it's raising from donors like Pruitt Industrial Park, it will have enough to keep working for several years.

'Our grantmaking will continue through 2022 and we hope longer, depending on our ability to continue raising funds,' Mullineaux said.

Many types of businesses – logistics, engineering and philanthropic – all used their special expertise in this operation, which AshBritt's Castillo called the largest debris removal operation in California since San Francisco's 1906 earthquake. But although they all stand ready to repeat their efforts if fire strikes again, they are hoping, as always, for a break from disasters.

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