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In Sonoma County toxic debris removal, officials in a race against rains

Campers have breakfast alongside Sonoma Creek at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood, California on Saturday, March 19, 2016. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

CHRISTI WARREN ,

With ash now blanketing much of Sonoma County, environmentalists are turning their efforts to debris removal in a race against the oncoming rainy season. Their primary concern: protecting the watershed from toxic runoff.

As the fire roared through Santa Rosa, car batteries, insulation, couches, industrial facilities, carpets, plastics — all things that shouldn’t burn — did.

In response, Cal Fire officials created the Watershed Emergency Response Team. A coalition of state and federal agencies, as well as local environmental nonprofits, it’s dedicated to keeping as much debris as possible out of the county’s waterways.

Their next step will be to evaluate the fire areas and identify which of those are at the most risk for watershed emergencies, prioritizing debris removal and runoff mitigation that way, said Johnny Miller, a public information officer for Cal Fire.

Once identified, sandbags, barriers and straw wattles will be placed to protect against any erosion that could result from winter rains. While Sonoma County is expected to get rain tonight and Friday morning, the .25 inches that could fall is not enough to cause officials much concern. This winter could be another story. With the North Bay facing a La Niña, it’s hard to tell just how much rain might fall, said Steve Anderson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

“Typically that means wetter than normal in the Pacific Northwest and dry in the desert Southwest,” he said.

But in the North Bay, “There are equal chances of above and below normal. ... We’ll just have to see what kind of weather patterns set up.”

That’s why Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the river, said clearing toxic debris as quickly as possible is so important.

“I am very concerned, but there’s only so much you can do,” he said. “You cannot prevent 100 percent of the toxins and things from going in (the watershed), but I feel like with the meetings that have been held this week, people have been very proactive about threats to the watershed, and that does give me hope that we’re going to do everything we possibly can before we have the rains come in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com.

On Twitter @SeaWarren.