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In Santa Rosa, EPA crews start fire cleanup in Coffey Park by surveying, testing

Five days after residents were allowed to sort through the ashes of their homes in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, EPA hazardous materials survey teams check for radiation, volatile organic compounds and mercury vapor on Wednesday, October 25, 2017. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

Like astronauts exploring an alien world, members of an Environmental Protection Agency survey team walked fire-ravaged Coffey Park on Wednesday afternoon searching for traces of foul air.

Working in pairs and wearing white Tyvek suits and other protective gear from head to toe, four EPA teams carried equipment to detect radiation, mercury vapor and organic gases, making their way through the ash, rubble and blackened trees that used to be a thriving Santa Rosa neighborhood.

Teams were also surveying burned areas in Soda Canyon and Silverado in Napa County as the cleanup from the most destructive wildfire in California history — with an estimated 6,800 homes destroyed in Sonoma County alone — started on a quiet note.

Aside from noxious vapors, the two-person teams were also looking for leftover household products that are corrosive or toxic and could in some cases catch fire or explode, such as paints, cleaners, oils, batteries and pesticides.

Those items were to be marked for EPA collection teams scheduled to start removing hazardous material Friday, said Tom Dunkelman, a Reno-based EPA on-scene coordinator assigned to Sonoma County.

“Mostly we’re just making it safe for cleanup crews to follow behind these guys,” he said, as a survey team walked through devastated homesites in the 3400 block of Santiago Drive on a bright, sunny afternoon with no other sign of human activity.

No information on the results of the Coffey Park surveying was available Wednesday, EPA spokeswoman Michele Huitric said.

The second wave of the government-funded cleanup — removing all fire debris, including ashes, concrete, metal, home foundations and contaminated soil — is scheduled to start Wednesday under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers management.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, called it “the largest cleanup in Golden State history” at a press conference Monday in Santa Rosa.

But the pace of debris removal could be hampered by a slow response to the controversial requirement that homeowners submit a right-of-entry form allowing Army Corps crews to work on their property.

About 400 to 500 forms had been submitted as of Wednesday afternoon, said county Director of Environmental Health Christine Sosko, whose office is collecting the forms brought in person or sent by mail, fax or email.

Sosko acknowledged that number is only “touching the surface” of the loss, which includes about 2,900 homes in Santa Rosa, where both Coffey Park and Fountaingrove were overrun by the Oct. 9 firestorm.

The Environmental Health office at 625 Fifth St., Santa Rosa will remain open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and weekends through Nov. 5, and no deadline has been set for submitting the forms, Sosko said.

Controversy over the forms and the debris-removal process centers around the blanket decision to remove foundations, based on the assumption they have been weakened by fire, and concern over the possible cost of the program widely publicized as free to homeowners.

Critics say the cleanup will be overly expensive because it will include foundations, and assert that homeowners may lose some insurance proceeds because the form requires homeowners to assign to the county all insurance payments earmarked for debris removal.

Those complaints are likely to be renewed at a community meeting on debris removal from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. today in the South Gym at Santa Rosa High School, 1235 Mendocino Ave. Questions may be submitted in advance until noon today by completing a questionnaire at www.surveymonkey.com/r/debrisremoval.

Homeowners who consent to the debris removal will receive 24- to 72-hour notice of the work on their land, said Rick Brown, a spokesman for the Army Corps’ Sacramento District, which is managing the cleanup.

“What we’re trying to do is apply a fix that will get the work done as quickly and safely as possible,” Brown said.

Contractors hired by the Army Corps would prefer to clean burned areas in groups, “in one fell swoop,” he said. But if the work has to proceed piecemeal it will, Brown said.

Cleanup crews will begin staging equipment in Sonoma County this weekend and be “ready to roll” Wednesday, he said.

Local officials will determine the priorities for areas of debris removal, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.