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Push on to keep ashy home debris out of Lake Berryessa

Push on to keep ashy home debris out of Lake Berryessa


About 40 young adults armed with straw tubes are trying to keep polluted, ashy remains of Hennessey Fire-destroyed homes from washing into Lake Berryessa with the early rains.

Hauling away debris from all of these lots will take time. A stopgap measure is needed to prevent erosion during the initial storms of the rainy season.

The cavalry is here. California Conservation Corps workers spent five days laying down more than five miles of straw wattles — basically straw tubes — and 1,500 linear feet of storm drain-protecting filters.

As they worked, they viewed the Hennessy Fire devastation in various Lake Berryessa communities.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Conservation Corps crew Supervisor Erik Weinmeister said as he stood along Rimrock Drive in Berryessa Highlands. “Just heartbreaking. Where do all the people go?”

In the Highlands alone, the Hennessey Fire burned about 93 of 350 homes.

Weinmeister stood near rubble-strewn lots and the charred remains of an incinerated car in this hilly, rural community. In the distance, massive Lake Berryessa stretched out in a panoramic view.

The link between the two are the storm drains in the gutters along the curbs near the destroyed homes. The storm drains ultimately empty into the reservoir.

The Conservation Corps mission is simple: keep ash containing chemicals and metals out of the lake. After all, the reservoir provides drinking water not only to the Highlands, but a few hundred thousand people in Solano County. It is home to fish and other aquatic life.

“I feel pretty grateful to be helping out,” said Corps member Jennifer Colin of Los Angeles. “We provide a service to these people, different communities that have been hit by the fires.”

She’d like to do what Weinmeister has done and have a career in the conservation field. The Conservation Corps gives young men and women ages 18 to 25 a year of paid service working on environmental projects.

“Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions and more!” is the Corps’ truth-in-advertising motto.

“I think it’s great,” Colin said. “I’m getting experience in conservation work.”

Berryessa resident Evan Kilkus watched as the crews pounded stakes into the ground to keep straw wattles in place along Rimrock Drive.

“I hope it will be a big help,” Kilkus said. “More importantly — I hate to say it — I’m hoping for not much rain this winter.”

That wish that would have seemed unlikely a few months ago, as Napa County wrapped up one of its driest rainy seasons on record. The Hennessey Fire in August and Glass Fire in September changed everything by creating a blackened landscape prone to rain-slicked erosion.

Kilkus said that out of the 90-plus Highlands homes that burned in the Hennessey Fire, about 10 lots have been cleared of debris.

Napa County approached the state Office of Emergency Services for help in keeping debris ash from washing away. The state dispatched the Conservation Corps at no cost to the county.

The Hennessey Fire burned about 150,000 acres in Napa County. The Conservation Corps dispatched its Ukiah squad, Delta squad and Placer squad to the Highlands, the Spanish Flat Mobile Home Villa and a Spanish Flat subdivision.

“The reason is we have a concentration of burned structures here,” said county Stormwater Program Manager Jamison Crosby.

And Lake Berryessa is nearby.

“As we all know, water is one of the most precious resources in Napa County,” county Emergency Services Officer Leah Greenbaum said.

Watch now: Conservation Corps in Berryessa Highlands burn area

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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