Sonoma County, landowners to bear cost of Kincade fire cleanup
Despite displacing an unprecedented 200,000 people and burning a record 77,758 acres of land in Sonoma County, the Kincade fire wasn’t a large enough disaster to trigger state or federal aid for debris cleanup, leaving the county and landowners on the hook for costs that will soar into the millions of dollars.
The Kincade fire started Oct. 23, and was finally declared fully contained Wednesday.
In that time, it destroyed 374 buildings, including 174 homes, and prompted the largest mass evacuation in county history.
As residents return home to pick up the pieces, though, they’ll largely be on their own.
“We did not rise to the level to receive a federal declaration, so the federal government was not going to come in and do this cleanup for us,” Deputy County Administrator Michael Gossman said. “We asked the state if they would do it through Cal Recycle, and they declined because it was not a large enough disaster.”
Gossman said he wasn’t surprised that the federal government would sit on the sidelines, and he admits it was always questionable whether the state would step up with a hazardous waste removal program.
When asked how many structures it would have to impact before the state would assist with cleanup costs, Gossman said state officials wouldn’t provide a number.
More than 374?
“Yeah,” he said.
So starting next week, county officials will move forward with their own hazardous waste cleanup program to kick-start the recovery at no cost to fire survivors.
This first phase will focus on collection of such things as propane tanks, batteries, asbestos siding and paints.
Following the hazardous debris work, landowners will be required to deal with the rest of the debris removal on their own - another difference from 2017, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers oversaw a $1.3 billion cleanup for the majority of North Bay properties affected by the fires.
For that disaster, the cost of cleanup via private contractor ranged from $40,000 to $90,000.
As in 2017, homeowners’ insurance policies should cover the bulk of the costs this time around.
For the hazardous materials phase, Sonoma County will contract with Chico-based NRC Environmental Services for work expected to cost $500,000 to $750,000, Deputy Director of Transportation and Public Works Trish Pisenti said in a phone interview Wednesday.
State aid is still expected to come to the county, helping the government recover up to 75% of the costs for response and emergency management operations, but the cleanup will fall to the county and its residents. Gossman said the county would also ask for up to 75% in reimbursement for its hazardous waste cleanup program.
The county program will dispatch contractors to all burned structures searching for hazardous waste, instead of just burned homes, as happened in the 2017 fires.
NRC Environmental Services will have up to four crews with up to 10 employees on each crew starting hazardous waste cleanup next week.
Each crew will have a county employee on board.
The public health emergency declared by the Board of Supervisors will enable crews to enter private property for the purposes of the cleanup.
Supervisor James Gore during the board’s Tuesday meeting openly worried about the potential for miscommunication, and the need to inform residents that “guys in moon suits” would be coming to their property.
Unlike in 2017, fire survivors this time will be required to submit soil tests before and after debris removal to prove the land is safe for them and any future residents to occupy the area.
Gossman said in 2017, when soils were tested after excavation, it was impossible to know whether arsenic levels in soils were naturally occurring or required more excavation.
Gossman cautioned that the lack of prior testing was not the cause of over-excavation, a problem that plagued 2017 fire survivors.
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvypressdemocrat.com.