Listed below are recent posts across all of CalRecyle's blogs.
After a catastrophic wildfire, getting “back to normal” is nearly impossible for any single property owner to handle. A family’s ability to rebuild—and the livability of the neighborhood—depends on what the family next door does, as well as the family next to them.
Todd Thalhamer at the site of the 2007 Boles Fire in Weed, Siskiyou County.
“Who wants to be the first house that’s developed, when you look out the window and all you see is nothing but ash and debris?” asks CalRecycle engineer Todd Thalhamer, the architect of a program that has cleaned up nearly 20,000 homes in the last decade. “When it comes right down to it, it’s a psychological issue—and a property value issue. If you clean up everything, you jump-start a community.”
The Integrated Waste Management Board, which later morphed into CalRecycle, started the Consolidated Debris Removal Program in 2007 to clean up the aftermath of the Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe. The majority of properties with affected homes drained into Angora Creek, which runs right into Lake Tahoe. This created an urgency to clean up debris before winter arrived and it washed into the famously clear and pristine lake. Crews were on the ground quickly. Firefighters extinguished most of the blaze by July 4. Ten days later, debris removal crews had the first home site cleared. The whole response effort was completed in three months.
Safe Enough for Our Own Children
From the beginning, this program balanced service to the homeowners, the community, and the environment. “At the time, I had a three-year-old,” Thalhamer recalled. “I’d tell the contractors, if it’s safe for my three-year-old to walk across this lot, then we know that a family is ready to rebuild.” Program staff have always valued this personal level of safety. This means cleaning up dangerous materials most homeowners don’t even realize lay in the ashes of their destroyed houses.
After a wildfire, property owners need experts to identify toxicity in the rubble and ashes.
A few of the invisible toxins common in residential burn scars include:
- Heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, zinc, and lead, which is especially high in homes built before 1978.
- Asbestos, which is present in most homes built before 1985 and in some newer homes as well.
- Hazardous materials such as propane tanks, air conditioners, batteries, pesticides, and herbicides are common in most homes.
For CalRecycle, the disaster debris removal program extends the department’s mission to ensure that California safely manages our materials—whether toxic and recyclable or not—to their best and highest use. It’s what the department does day in and day out. CalRecycle staff are experts in this. The debris removal program intensifies this effort in the service to communities recovering from tragedy.
The Go-To Crew After Disasters
In the years immediately following the 2007 Angora Fire, the debris removal team was only activated one time—for the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. But in 2014, the Boles Fire in Siskiyou County swept into a neighborhood in Weed destroying over a hundred homes, echoing the devastation seven years previously in South Lake Tahoe. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) called on CalRecycle to respond, and the team has worked almost continuously on cleaning up wildfire debris since then.
Since 2014, CalRecycle has:
- Overseen 20 major disaster projects
- Removed 5.6 million tons of materials (65 percent from the 2019 clean up of the Camp Fire)
- Performed disaster recovery for 16 different counties, from Los Angeles to the Oregon border
- Cleaned and certified 17,297 properties as ready to rebuild in suburban neighborhoods, farms, mountain valley towns, scenic coastlines, and forested cabin areas.
We’re On a Mission from Cal OES
CalRecycle doesn’t take on these projects of its own volition. Cal OES must mission task CalRecycle before we can help. This can happen after Cal OES grants a request for assistance from a local jurisdiction in crisis. In fact, the only major incident in the past five years that CalRecycle didn’t mobilize to clean up was the 2017 North Bay fires, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handled.
For one key CalRecycle debris team member, the department has proven its expertise in clean up and managing the destroyed materials. “We’ve earned the confidence of others that we can handle projects this size with efficiency,” Alan Zamboanga said.
Zamboanga, who served as the finance chief or contract manager on most of the projects since 2014, points out that CalRecycle continues to demonstrate operational and financial efficiency, including the massive 11,000-property Camp Fire debris recovery project. “Because of our expertise and knowledge, we are the go-to people when it comes to wildfire debris.”
The 2007 Angora Fire Incident Management Team on the site of the last property cleaned.Posted on In the Loop by Chris McSwain on Feb 24, 2020
Chris and Michelle Friedman spent this past Thanksgiving in Santa Barbara with their daughter and four grandkids.
“It’s good to be with family during the holidays,” reflected Michelle.
Last year, their Thanksgiving had no tradition or comfort. They spent the weekend lodged in Redding after losing their Paradise home to the Camp Fire.
“Our hearts weren’t really into Thanksgiving,” explained Michelle. “We couldn’t enjoy it when we just lost so much.”
Last November, their house in Paradise was destroyed due to the Camp Fire. Their 1,900 square foot retirement dream home and almost all of their belongings had turned to ashes.
“That place felt like a vacation home in the mountains,” reflected Michelle. “We really loved it.”
Their house was one of nearly 11,000 homes in Butte County cleaned up by teams Cal OES and CalRecycle managed. After CalEPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control removed the most hazardous waste from burned properties, CalRecycle oversaw Phase 2, clearing away debris and ash from properties and recycling all concrete and anything else salvageable.
CalRecycle crews recently cleared more than 3.66 million tons, or 7.3 billion pounds, of ash, debris, metal, concrete, and contaminated soil.
“Our role is really critical with the survivors,” said Wes Minderman, CalRecycle Engineering Support Branch Chief. “We have a displaced community, these people have lost everything, and so our role and responsibility are to make sure that we do the debris removal, but we’re also sensitive to that fact. This is for the survivors. This is to assist them to recover and begin with the next step of their lives.”
Prior to the clean up of their property, the Friedmans were able to communicate with the project’s foreman, sharing floor plans and pictures of what the house used to look like.
“We knew they wouldn’t find much, but they took the time and had the concern to make sure that they were as thorough as they could be. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for. What they did was give us closure with the confidence that there wasn’t anything to be found, and that in itself is a gift to us,” said Michelle.Posted on In the Loop by Syd Fong on Dec 2, 2019
CalEPA Under Secretary Serena McIlwain, Ken DaRosa, and CalRecycle staff members and contractors stand in front of one of the homes being rebuilt in Paradise.
On the heels of the one-year anniversary of the Camp Fire, state cleanup crews have removed the final loads of wildfire debris from almost 11,000 burned properties in Butte County.
Since Feb. 2, 2019, crews managed by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) have cleared more than 3.66 million tons—or 7.3 billion pounds—of ash, debris, metal, concrete, and contaminated soil from the 10,904 properties that took part in the state’s Consolidated Debris Removal Program. The program, implemented in coordination with local governments and in partnership with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, offered survivors a streamlined option to clear their properties at no out-of-pocket cost.
Cal OES Staff and Ceres Environmental debris removal crew pose as last debris is loaded in Concow, Butte County.
Twice as Much Debris as 9/11
World Trade Center Disaster
The largest cleanup project of its type in California history cleared twice the amount of debris removed from the World Trade Center site post-9/11.
“This is a story of resilience, and I am inspired by the people of Paradise’s grit and their resolve to move forward after last year’s devastating fire,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom. “Our state continues to stand with the communities and all families that were impacted.”
More than 98 percent of the properties have been cleared for redevelopment, with the remaining sites going through the last stages of soil testing, erosion control, and property inspections in the past week. After the final inspection, property owners receive certification from Butte County that their lot is eligible for a building permit.
“Debris removal is an important first step in the rebuilding of Butte County and the Town of Paradise,” CalRecycle Director Scott Smithline said. “From our contractors to our state, local, and federal partners, we are proud of everyone who has worked to help this community rebuild while keeping public and environmental health at the forefront.”
The milestone was recognized on Tuesday, Nov. 19, with an announcement next to Paradise High School and overlooking one of dozens of homes now under construction on properties cleared by the CalRecycle/Cal OES project. The announcement, attended by members of the media, included representatives from the Town of Paradise, Butte County, Cal OES, and FEMA, as well as Assemblyman James Gallagher and Cal EPA Undersecretary Serena McIlwain.
Project Completed Three Months
Sooner Than Expected
“State, federal, and local government collaborated with private contractors to clear contaminated debris in just nine months because we shared one goal: to give almost 11,000 families back environmentally clean properties where they can rebuild their lives,” Undersecretary McIlwain noted. “Thank you to our staff at CalRecycle and the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) for your commitment to the safety of the Camp Fire survivors.”
Two CalEPA Departments Collaborated
After the fire, DTSC’s Emergency Response Unit ensured that hazardous waste crews quickly and carefully cleaned up toxic substances such as asbestos to protect emergency personnel, the public, the environment, and workers involved in restoration efforts.
CalRecycle then brought in teams of specialized contractors. Many of the workers lived in tents and trailers for long periods to prevent removing housing options for Camp Fire survivors. At homeowners’ requests, these de¬bris removal crews often sifted through ash looking for the remains of heirlooms like jewelry, collectibles, or clay that may have been hearty enough to survive the fire.
Over the nine-month project, crews drove 305,000 truckloads of debris a total of 28.2 million road miles—the equivalent of 59 round trips to the moon. The intensive effort brought unprecedented traffic and activity to the previously quiet community.
“We want to thank the community,” CalRecycle Chief Deputy Director Ken DaRosa said at Tuesday’s event, surrounded by the core fire debris removal team and industry partners. “We want to thank you for your patience, for your cooperation, for your support. This was not an easy operation: There were challenges; there were delays. But you stood by us. You believed in us. And you trusted us. We want to take today and thank you for that trust, that belief, and that support.”
CalRecycle will next take on the removal of Butte County’s 350,000 fire-damaged trees that threaten public roads. Crews are expected to start working early in 2020 and continue through the fall.Posted on In the Loop by CalRecycle Staff on Nov 21, 2019