Cleaning up and removing debris from California’s deadly November wildfires will cost billions and likely take a year.
The Camp, Hill, and Woolsey fires destroyed 18,000 properties and could produce 6 million to 8 million tons of debris, said Brad Alexander, a spokesman for California Office of Emergency Services.
State officials don’t have an exact estimate for this cleanup, but it cost about $1.3 billion to remove 2.1 million tons of debris from the deadly October 2017 fires in Napa and Sonoma counties that destroyed more than 7,000 structures.
“We’re talking four to five times more,” Alexander told Bloomberg Environment Dec. 6.
For the Camp Fire alone, experts expect about 1,500 to 2,000 truckloads a day hauling away bits of houses, cars, and mementos from all over the town of Paradise, the starting point for the 153,000-acre fire that killed 85 people.
“This disaster is so large,” he said. “So many structures, so complex, so total in its destruction.”
Hazardous Waste First
Crews from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and Environmental Protection Agency this week began removing household hazardous waste, including propane tanks, car batteries, cleaning supplies, pool chemicals, asbestos, and pesticides from the fire sites.
Crews members wearing Tyvek suits, hard hats, steel-toed boots, safety glasses, respirators, and gloves are combing over the sites and removing hazards as part of the first phase of cleanup, Adam Palmer, a senior environmental scientist at the Department of Toxic Substances Control, told Bloomberg Environment.
“One of the biggest hazards out there is all the nails,” he said.
Largest Debris Removal Operation
Once hazardous items are removed, CalRecycle will oversee general debris removal and recycling. The state will remove debris at no cost to property owners, but it must obtain permission from landowners first. Private contractors also can be hired.
Crews also will install erosion control measures to keep soils in place, CalRecycle spokesman Lance Klug told Bloomberg Environment.
The Carr fire this summer in Northern California, which destroyed 1,600 structures, took 12 weeks to clean up. The November fires damaged more.
“It is going to be CalRecycle’s largest debris removal operation to date,” Klug said.
President Donald Trump signed a disaster declaration in November covering the fires, which means the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover 75 percent of eligible costs for debris removal and emergency measures.
The 2017 fire season was destructive, but 2018 has surpassed that, and government has taken notice. In the legislative session that ended in August, California politicians passed a number of bills to reduce threats from wildfires.
That trend appears to be continuing. In the first days of the 2019-2020 legislative session, Assemblymember Jim Wood (D) filed a bill that would create a statewide fire preparedness council and regional ones in high-fire zones. The bill also establishes a $1 billion fund to provide no- and low-interest loans for homeowners to make homes more fire-resistant.
That would include using special roofing and siding, installing vent screens, and creating “noncombustible” zones around homes.
Homes that survived in Paradise had many of these elements, Wood told Bloomberg Environment Dec. 6.
“Why don’t we invest in the prevention part of this?” Wood said. “We don’t really do investing in things. We kind of treat the symptoms as they come along. I think in the long run it costs more money.”