What it takes to move mountains of debris from North Bay wildfires

Fires ravaged thousands of North Bay homes in minutes about 13 months ago, but collecting and hauling the debris from those sites took months.

The last truck load of ash and materials from the fires came out in June, ending government-sponsored cleanups in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties that included 4,563 parcels.

One of the firms doing that work under contract from the Army Corps of Engineers, AshBritt Environmental Inc., moved 25,000 tons of material a day in the counties, starting just days after the fires of October 2017.

That firm's CEO, Brittany Perkins Castillo, recapped the company's experience for about 300 people on Nov. 7 at North Bay Business Journal's Impact Sonoma: State of the Wildfire Recovery conference in Santa Rosa.

'I was on the ground from December through April and the sense of hope in this community then and now is well beyond what I have seen anywhere else,' she said. 'I know some people have said the way to describe it is 'Sonoma Optimistic,' but I think it is really 'Sonoma Special.''

Of the 4,563 properties cleared, the vast majority, 3,674 — or 81 percent — were in Sonoma County, where the Tubbs fire ravaged entire Santa Rosa neighborhoods. The Corps cleared 439 lots in Napa, 306 in Mendocino, and 144 in Lake County.

At the conference, Castillo led a panel discussion, which included representatives of national and local companies, and unions that worked with AshBritt in the cleanup.

Panelists said initial issues faced in the cleanup included where to dispose of the material and how quickly.

Castillo said there was a 'bottleneck' of material waiting to be disposed of in landfills or being recycled, which eventually was cleared.

As far as local firms being able to join in getting contracts to participate in the work, Castillo said its contract with the federal government required AshBritt be on-site within 24 hours, making it more difficult to line up area business contracts for the work.

'Some people are not happy. We were dealing with a multitude of contracts and government requirements that made the job difficult and that needs to be fixed,' she said.

But one business, Wolff Contracting in Santa Rosa, was among the area firms involved in the debris clean up, according to founder Michael Wolff.

In June he told the Press Democrat the company cleared 150 sites and assisted in hundreds of others. He was impressed with the coordination federal and state officials brought to the monumental task.

'For the most part, I felt like the (Army Corps of Engineers) did a great job,' Wolff said. 'I was blown away by how well things came together and how much work was done in such a short period of time.'

Speaking at the conference, Wolff said the company, founded in 2010, went from 17 full-time employees before the 2017 blazes, to 60 at the height of the cleanup. Hiring included area people who had lost homes or jobs.

There were some lots, about 200 in Sonoma County, which were over-excavated and, according to the Army Corps, required returning some soil to the site.

Panelists also focused on the need to prepare. Businesses can prepare to be ready to get government work by becoming familiar with federal requirements. Cities can prepare by knowing disasters will come, and having plans to clean up afterwards.

'What debris will be generated? What are the routes for disposal? Those kinds of questions,' said Castillo.

Pasadena-based Tetra Tech provides consulting and engineering services to the Army Corps of Engineers, which contracts with companies to do clean up.

But Anne Cabrera, deputy director the Tetra Tech's post-disaster program, told the audience it is also involved in helping cities and others plan for the days after a disaster when, as in the North Bay, the focus is on cleaning up debris.

'Any kind of planning you can do, knowing the threats in your area will be key to preparing your plan,' Cabrera told the audience. She said government and businesses need to partner to help develop those plans in advance.

Part of the planning should include making sure area businesses have trained workers who can handle the material, and to have those businesses interested in participating in federal-funding contracting know what the requirements are and be authorized before the next disaster.

Michael Pickens is a senior organizer for Operating Engineers Local 3, part of district 10, which includes 18,000 heavy-equipment operators. The union representative said because fire debris is considered hazardous waste, training workers in advance on how to deal with the material is key.

That was a problem in this cleanup, said Pickens, with some companies left unaware of what the federal government would ask of any businesses it partners with.

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