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October wildfire debris removal nearly complete

Local, state and federal officials announced Thursday the virtual completion of debris removal from 4,500 parcels burned or damaged in the October wildfires in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties.

The 99 percent completion “milestone” was reached seven months and one day after the fires and six months after the debris removal began.

Officials said the 2.2 million tons of debris from the four counties that was hauled to seven landfills is one of the largest such operations in state history. The Sonoma County landfill received 40 percent of the total, Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said:

“This is not just about the numbers. This represents people’s lives and memories. Forty people died that night.”

The fires burned an estimated 5,300 homes and apartments in Sonoma County, including 3,000 in Santa Rosa where 117 homes are now under construction, 85 have received permits to rebuild and 163 are awaiting permit approval, Coursey said.

Debris must still be removed from two parcels in Sonoma County on Alpine Road off Calistoga Road north of Santa Rosa. A temporary bridge will be built to access the property and remove the debris, said Sean Smith, statewide debris coordinator for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

Most residents elected to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers remove hazardous burn debris from their property, but 419 parcel owners chose to have a private contractor handle the job, Santa Rosa Assistant Fire Marshal Paul Lowenthal said.

Lowenthal said:

“Only three parcels still need debris removed and they are in the abatement process.”

Mark Ghilarducci, director of Cal OES, said the coordinated response to debris removal was “a one team, one fight effort” by elected officials, state and federal agencies and the community.

Ghilarducci said:

“There was a tremendous amount of coordination.”

He said Cal OES will remain after the debris removal and help “rebuild to the fullest” with state and federal money.

Bill Roche, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Region 9 coordinating officer, said:

“There is more left to do. We know people are still hurting. Some of our staff in Oakland were affected by the fires. We’re not going away. This is a long-term recovery.”

Col. Eric McFadden, deputy commander of the South Pacific Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, said more than 850 volunteers from the corps participated in the debris removal.

McFadden said:

“Our role is to support our state and local partners.”

The federal Environmental Protection Agency had 300 staff members and contractors “with boots on the ground” in mid-October in Sonoma and Napa counties and later in Lake and Mendocino counties, EPA Region 9 director Enrique Manzanilla said.

More than 6,500 parcels were cleared, 700 of them containing asbestos, and 2,600 tons of hazardous waste were removed, Manzanilla said.

He said the scale of the debris removal was “unprecedented.”

The debris removal from 314 square miles of land affected by the fires should be completed by the end of May, Ghilarducci said.

Coursey said:

“We are fully into the recovery stage.”

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