Cleanup from the most destructive wildfire in state history will start Wednesday in Sonoma County amid a cloud of uncertainty — tinged with hostility — over exactly how it will impact the owners of an estimated 6,700 homes lost in the conflagration.
At a noisy press conference Monday, officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers, Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and others announced the start of a cleanup they said will last until early next year.
Work will start with a “toxic sweep” managed by the EPA that will identify and remove hazardous material from all burned residential properties in the wake of a local health emergency declared last week by the county Board of Supervisors.
Eric Lamoureux, an OES regional administrator, said the sweep will start Wednesday, followed immediately by a full cleanup of burned property conducted by the Corps of Engineers. Homeowners must sign and submit a detailed right-of-entry form to qualify for that program, a requirement generating angst among anxious homeowners.
“We are not going to charge for this cleanup,” Lamoureux told a crowd of several hundred people in the lobby of the Rattigan State Building on D Street, where an official press conference turned into an impromptu community meeting.
The permit form states that homeowners must assign to the county “any and all insurance proceeds” they would be entitled to for removal of debris from their property. The county will also collect any insurance payments left over after rebuilding, an assessment Lamoureux said “is not going to affect your ability to rebuild.” No liens will be placed on property as a result of the cleanup, he said.
Right-of-entry forms and assistance filling them out will be available starting Wednesday morning at the county Public Health office at 625 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. Homeowners should bring identification for all persons named on the property title along with a copy of their insurance policy.
A process for opting out of the government-sponsored cleanup has not been determined, said Shirlee Zane, the Board of Supervisors chairwoman.
Zane cautioned people about taking up offers from private parties to do cleanup work for $15 an hour, while Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey encouraged homeowners to “join the process.” But unease is rampant among homeowners facing a choice between the government program and going it alone, applying insurance payments or personal resources to the cost of hiring a contractor.
“There’s conflicting stuff out there,” Willie Rietman, a Larkfield resident who lost his home in the firestorm, said in an interview Monday. “We all have to rebuild. We’re just looking for ways to save as much money as possible.”
Damian Clapton, who lost his home in Coffey Park, is one of the 2,907 Santa Rosa residents left in a ruined landscape and a clouded future. An additional 3,800 homes were lost in the county’s unincorporated areas.
“It’s really murky,” Clapton said. “They need to make this crystal clear.”
The government cleanup “seems like it’s being sold as a panacea for the county but not necessarily for each individual homeowner,” he said.
At the press conference, a man angrily challenged the announcement that the Corps of Engineers’ cleanup would include removal of concrete foundations. “We have determined foundations (burned in wildfires) are not safe for rebuilding,” Lamoureux said.