California's cleanup of the Camp Fire, the largest post-disaster project of its kind in state history, is only weeks old. But already, questions and concerns are piling up.
A Pasadena-based firm previously caught falsifying soil tests during the cleanup of a former shipyard in San Francisco has been awarded one of the first contracts for the Camp Fire project, prompting a call by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, for a federal review of that company's numerous government contracts.
Continuing his war on the state's forest management practices, President Trump tweeted a threat this week that he may withhold federal emergency funds to California, which are expected to cover 75 percent of the cleanup costs.
Butte County residents are upset about where the state plans to truck the debris, some of which is toxic.
And so far, only about one third of the eligible burned-out property owners in the hills around Paradise have agreed to be part of the government-run cleanup, prompting concerned Butte County leaders to schedule a press conference Thursday urging residents to sign up before a looming end-of-January deadline.
Still, state disaster relief leaders say they are optimistic one month into what is expected to be a one-year-long effort. The $3.5 billion operation will be by far the most extensive post-disaster cleanup the state has dealt with.
Seasoned federal disaster experts acknowledge they are embarking on something unprecedented.
"This is the largest fire clean-up the agency has ever funded," David Passey of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said last week. "There is no dollar limit on this mission. Safe and coordinated debris removal is critical to the rebuilding of these communities."
The calamitous Camp Fire leveled Paradise and other hillside towns near Chico, killing nearly 90 residents and destroying 19,000 buildings. It also left behind an ugly and toxic mess more than 5 million tons of ash, deformed steel, seared concrete and blackened car husks.
Last month, crews in white protective suits launched what will be a massive effort to scrape away the scars from Paradise and other hillside towns, making them safe for re-habitation -- or at least a clean slate for wildfire survivors to re-imagine their future.
Faked soil tests
The effort has begun amid uncertainty and potential legal conflict.
Tetra Tech Inc., the engineering firm hired by state officials to test potentially contaminated soils on burned homesteads, has been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for faking soil samples during a cleanup project in San Francisco's former Hunters Point naval shipyard. Two company executives plead guilty last year and were sentenced to prison.
Pelosi, whose district includes Hunters Point, expressed dismay at the contract award. Pelosi has asked for a federal review of Tetra Tech's federal contracts and its performance.
"We are concerned that Tetra Tech continues to receive contracts amidst ongoing Department of Justice whistleblower lawsuits into their fraudulent work at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard," Pelosi spokeswoman Taylor Griffin said. "Wildfire victims of California must have confidence that recovery efforts are accurate, trustworthy and safe."
Speaking to The Sacramento Bee this week, a Tetra Tech spokesman, Sam Singer, called the two employees involved in the San Francisco scandal "rogue," and said the company stepped in and corrected problems.
A company competing for the Butte County contract, Arcadis, has challenged the state's $250 million contract award to Tetra Tech on a bidding technicality. State officials, however, have given Tetra Tech the go-ahead to get to work and say the protest is unlikely to slow the process. Company crews began site work on Monday.
CalRecycle officials said Thursday Tetra Tech was the lowest responsible bidder for the contract and that the state has confidence in the company's work.
"In previous wildfire debris removal operations, Tetra Tech has proven to be a reliable debris management contractor, meeting CalRecycle's high standards for health and safety, performance, and operational accountability," spokesman Lance Klug said in an email to The Bee.
Klug said CalRecycle has, however, implemented a new auditing process as an additional layer of oversight on current and future projects, in part because of the large size of the Camp Fire contracts.
"All CalRecycle-managed wildfire debris removal operations are conducted with strict contractor oversight measures to protect the health of wildfire survivors, communities, and all workers involved in debris removal efforts, in addition to internal auditing systems to ensure operational accountability," Klug wrote.
State Sen. Jim Nielsen, who represents the fire-burn area, said he has concerns not only about Tetra Tech's work, but also about the entire project, including the new auditing process and the number of trucks that will be on the road in the area.
"The future of a community is at stake," Nielsen said. "This is an enormous project. It's complicated. I am at best cautiously optimistic. But I am going to be asking (CalRecycle) about this auditing process."
Funding for the cleanup is also a concern. On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted that he'd ordered FEMA not to send any more wildfire-related funds to California, unless the state gets its "act together" on forest management to prevent fires.
FEMA press officials were not available for comment this week. A voice mail message at FEMA headquarters said news media inquiries would be answered after the current federal government shutdown ends.
California Democrats dismissed the president's comments as callous and empty threats. Current law states that when there is a disaster declaration, as in this case, the president cannot "delay or impede the rapid deployment, use, and distribution of critical resources to victims of an emergency."
A historic cleanup
The cleanup will represent the sternest test yet of the state's ability to respond quickly to get displaced residents back on their land, and will likely try the patience of Butte County residents who will have to deal with hundreds of debris-filled trucks making thousands of daily trips on local roads en route to landfills and recycling centers.
Mark Ghilarducci, head of the state's Office of Emergency Services, said he believes the task is bigger than the cleanup after the epic 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco, and easily more costly and time-consuming than other recent Northern California fires that swept into neighborhoods of Santa Rosa and Redding.
At an estimated $3.5 billion, the Camp Fire work is far bigger than the just-finishing cleanup of last summer's Carr Fire, which destroyed 1,000-plus structures, including entire blocks of homes in Redding. The budget for that project was an estimated $133 million. The handful of fires that swept through Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties in 2017 are expected to cost less than $1 billion combined.
The scene in the Butte County hills will resemble a military operation. Contractors and state agencies will set up "base camps" to house workers -- with mess halls, showers and laundry facilities -- so workers from around the state and possibly from outside California don't compete for limited housing with local residents.
Six days a week, crews will load debris into truck beds, where it will be "burrito wrapped" in plastic sheets to keep toxic ashes from flying out during transit. Officials estimate an average of 350 tons of debris will be removed from each property. That includes house foundations and contaminated soil underneath.
Officials said many grieving property owners will avoid the emotional toll of watching the remains of their homes get swept away. But others will show up, hoping crews will uncover still-intact artifacts of their lives. Crews will try to accommodate them; one potential contractor, Randy Perkins, owner of a major Florida disaster clean-up company, says it can lead to poignant moments if workers find personal effects among the ruins.
If the property owner isn't there, he said, "you bag it and tag it" for return to the owner.
The state won't touch swimming pools. Crews will instead put fences around pools and let homeowners do the cleaning. But crews will haul away husks of burned cars after state inspectors attempt to identify each vehicle and close it out of the state's vehicle registration system.
Away from Paradise
State and federal officials say they will handle all expenses for the cleaning of properties of owners who opt in. They then will seek reimbursement from private insurance companies. In many cases, insurance will cover only part of the cost. FEMA and the state of California would absorb the rest, with the federal government's responsibility pegged at 75 percent of the cost burden.
In order to have their property cleaned at government expense, residents have to sign a "right-of-entry" form, essentially giving the government the OK to come onto their property to clear contaminants. State officials have counted 14,700 properties that need to be cleaned. But as of this week, less than one-third of eligible property owners had opted in. Butte County has set a Jan. 31 deadline to sign up.
Casey Hatcher, manager of economic and community development for Butte County, said officials are trying various means to get the message to residents, some of whom are living out of the area. Others may be leery about dealing with the government.
Property owners who do not sign up for the government's help will be required to hire their own debris removal companies and seek reimbursement from their insurance companies. If they fail to clean their properties, Butte County ultimately will declare their land a nuisance.
One notation in the right-of-entry document has alarmed some residents. By signing up, owners cede control of their property for up to three years. Eric Lamoureux of the state Office of Emergency Services said last week officials do not intend to control properties that long.
"We never know what we are going to run into," Lamoureaux said. "Our goal is to be done in 12 months, but ... we want to give ourselves as much wiggle room as you will."
State officials say they hope, more realistically, to begin turning cleaned properties back over to owners within weeks of the cleanup, as soon as soil samples are tested and determined to be clean. That means the first property owners may regain access to their land in early February.
State Department of Toxic Substances Control crews already have been on site for a month in the burned areas of Butte County doing initial work removing containers of household hazardous waste, including propane tanks, batteries, oil and acidic materials.
The more intense portion of the cleanup begins later this month. California will choose three contractors after opening bids for the work on Jan. 22. Two will divvy up Paradise; a third will handle the surrounding areas.
Those companies must mobilize by Jan. 30, with "chimney tipping" crews and asbestos removal crews on site in the first 48 hours.
The cleanup represents a financial boon to a region that needs it. The project has drawn the attention of national and international companies eager to land a piece of the multi-billion dollar project. Nearly 500 potential contractor representatives showed up last week in Butte County for a state-sponsored job "walk through" discussion of what's ahead.
Among them was Perkins of Florida-based disaster clean-up giant AshBritt Environmental, which has helped governments dig out from the damage caused by hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, as well as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed tens of thousands and severely damaged an estimated 250,000 homes.
Perkins said he was taken aback during a recent tour of Butte County. "We spent years in Haiti after the earthquake, but this one hits me unlike anything I've ever seen," he said.
Camp Fire debris
Another unanswered question: Where does the debris go? And how does it get there?
The project may lead to congestion as platoons of trucks carrying ash, dirt and other debris roll up and down the same narrow foothill roads that proved to be too small to handle the mass evacuation when the Camp Fire broke out on Nov. 8. One contractor predicted those roads will take a 10-year beating in one year, requiring an expensive rehab when the project is done.
Some of the debris, perhaps one-fifth, will be recycled. That includes concrete foundations that will be ground back into particles to be reused as part of cement mixes for future infrastructure projects, including possibly local projects. Metal will be smelted for future reuse.
The recycling plan has been controversial. Some Chico residents recently balked at a proposed recycling location in their city. State officials have been looking at doing the recycling in Oroville, but are also considering shipping it to various recycling centers around Northern California.
Most of the debris, though, is contaminated and will be buried in landfills. The state has identified three sites as most likely dumping grounds: the Neal Road Landfill near Paradise, the Ostrom Road Landfill near Wheatland and the Anderson Landfill near Red Bluff.
They are among the closest to Paradise. But even so, the Red Bluff and Wheatland landfills will require trucks to make round trips of more than 100 miles, pushing up costs and burdening highways with extra traffic over the next year.
Can California do it?
Other landfills under consideration include sites in the greater Sacramento region, including in Lincoln, Sloughhouse and Woodland, as well as sites in Vacaville, Lodi, Manteca, Suisun City, Pittsburg and Novato.
The massive clean-up prompts other longer-term concerns. If wildfires continue to happen, are California landfills at risk of being over taxed? And are the state's emergency agencies, such as OES, CalRecycle and DTSC adequately staffed for the long haul?
Waste Management, one of the biggest haulers and landfill operators in the country, owns the Anderson landfill near Red Bluff, which just finished taking most of the Carr Fire debris and is now prepping new space for the Camp Fire. Ken Lewis, an executive with the company, says its Anderson landfill has about 60 years of capacity left. But the Camp Fire debris alone could shorten that lifespan by five years. Still, he said, he's lobbying for the Camp Fire waste to come to his door.
The possibility of overworking state agencies may be a bigger concern. Mark Murray of Californians Against Waste, a group that promotes recycling and waste reduction, said he is already seeing the strain as state emergency staff at OES, DTSC and CalRecycle find themselves repeatedly focused on wildfire management and cleanup.
"We see these wildfires as one-time events, but now they are happening every year," Murray said. "It's taking people away from other mission work. The state is going to have to come up with a permanent funding source. Staff has to be re-purposed to the extent these crisis are the new normal."
State emergency officials point out -- perversely -- that they are getting good at dealing with wildfire aftermaths because they are facing them constantly now. They are, however, preaching patience with the Camp Fire, their biggest challenge yet.
"We feel confident we will be able to tackle it," state OES official Kelly Huston said. "We just have to manage expectations."