Crews wearing bright white Tyvek protective suits will begin surveying burned home sites in Sonoma County for hazardous materials this morning, in the first stage of a post-fire cleanup that will last until early next year.
Four-member teams organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will eventually survey all of the estimated 6,700 homes reduced to ash this month by the Tubbs fire and other destructive blazes in the county.
Survey teams will be followed by EPA cleanup crews that will remove and properly dispose of hazardous household materials that remain, such as paint, pesticides, gasoline, propane containers and batteries, said Tom Dunkelman, a Reno-based EPA on-scene coordinator assigned to Sonoma County.
The free EPA toxics sweep is an essential first step in the cleanup process, preceding the debris removal managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
But the toxics removal is separate from the cleanup that requires homeowners to sign a right-of-entry form to allow Army Corps crews to clear ash and debris, including concrete foundations.
That form, which requires homeowners to assign to the county any insurance payments earmarked for debris removal, has generated questions and some controversy for people weighing the option of handling cleanup on their own.
“Our mission is to come out and remove hazardous waste ahead of the Army Corps of Engineers,” Dunkelman said.
“We just want to make sure we are protecting everyone’s safety,” said Sonoma County Health Officer Karen Milman.
Most homes and garages contain hazardous materials that are safe under ordinary conditions, but a rampant wildfire leaves behind concerns the substances may be leaking into the ground, she said.
“We don’t know exactly what’s there,” she said, without conducting a lot-by-lot inspection intended to protect residents as well as cleanup workers.
The toxic survey teams will consist of an EPA employee, a county employee and two contract workers hired by the federal agency, Dunkelman said.
The cleanup crews will begin collecting the hazardous material Monday, with at least 15 teams in the field, he said, and a goal of removing toxics from 250 homes a day as the survey teams continue their work as well.
Both jobs should be completed by Dec. 15, Dunkelman said. Debris removal efforts will continue into early next year, officials said.
For information on debris removal and related matters, go to sonomacountyreovers.org.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.