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Santa Rosa community meeting focuses on fire debris cleanup

Hundreds of homes were destroyed in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa as containment grows, the residents are beginning to clean up and put their lives back together. (Chad Surmick/The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

The stuffy atmosphere inside a packed gymnasium had people fanning themselves with a fact sheet on fire debris removal Thursday night as officials explained how a free government program will remove hazardous waste and clear ash and wreckage from thousands of Sonoma County homes destroyed in the firestorm three weeks ago.

But the tone of the meeting, which drew a crowd of about 700 people to the Santa Rosa High School gymnasium, was more civil than a session last week in the same place that had confrontational moments.

“I’m in it with you,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said Thursday, adding that the city, county, state and federal governments were, as well. “Whether that’s comforting to you, I don’t know.”

Questions read by Coursey and Shirlee Zane, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors chairwoman, focused on the heavy-duty cleanup — managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and starting next week — that will literally scrape incinerated home sites down to bare earth.

Josh Jimmerfield, an Army Corps debris expert, explained why concrete stem walls and foundations will be removed from every home whose owners agree to the service. Tests have shown that the concrete is typically unsound following a fire and the soil beneath it often contaminated, he said.

A fact sheet prepared jointly by the city of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County handed out at the meeting stated even if the foundation is structurally sound, “there is a risk of exposure to toxins if you choose not to remove it.”

Homeowners who opt out of the program and save their foundations “will be required to meet approved standards” to ensure the integrity of the concrete, the fact sheet said.

Meanwhile, a mandatory, free collection of household hazardous waste at burned home sites, conducted by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency crews, will start today in Coffey Park.

“We’re already seeing many of these materials did survive the fire,” said Tom Dunkelman, an EPA on-scene coordinator assigned to Sonoma County.

To qualify for the subsequent debris removal, homeowners must sign and submit a detailed right-of-entry form allowing Army Corps contractors onto private property.

About 400 to 500 forms have been submitted, and no deadline has been set for the paperwork, said county Director of Environmental Health Christine Sosko.

“We want to give you ample time to do research on your own and decide which way to go,” she said.

Coursey and Dunkelman both referred during the meeting to more than 5,000 homes having been destroyed by the fires. Cal Fire has put the number at more than 6,900 homes.

Zane said the supervisors Tuesday will adopt standards to be met by homeowners who opt out of the government debris removal program.

Assistance with right-of-entry forms is available at the Environmental Health office at 625 Fifth St., which is also staffing a hotline at 707-565-6700.

Officials reiterated the program is free, but critics have said the language regarding insurance payments is unclear. The form requires homeowners to assign to the county all insurance payments earmarked for debris removal.

Homeowners who opt for the cleanup will receive 48 hours’ notice of the work on their property, Jimmerfield said.

Air quality will be monitored at the work sites and at nearby schools, he said.

Heavy equipment and trucks will be parked on roads and the work will “create a good deal of noise,” the fact sheet said.

Justin Murazzo, a Hidden Valley resident, said in an interview after the meeting he wanted to know if the cleanup at nearby homes posed a threat to his family, including three young children, who live four houses away from a burned area.

“That’s the worry,” he said. “Making sure the neighborhood stays safe.”

Kent Brown said he wanted to know when trash collection would resume at his home at the edge of the mass destruction of Coffey Park.

Brown’s house was intact but uninhabitable due to smoke damage and he has about a dozen garbage bags full of ruined items. Repairs will cost thousands of dollars, he said.

“I wish it had burned down, to tell the truth,” he said.

Coursey told the crowd the city will continue holding community meetings “until you stop coming” to them.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457.