Carlos Zarate has a job many young boys would envy: driving a big-wheeled yellow loader as its twin blades squash, lift and stack burned cars.
Monday in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, Zarate and other wrecking yard workers were busy removing the burned hulks of former sedans and SUVS. In the fire-ravaged neighborhood, the windowless wrecks have become as distinctive as blackened trees. Their numbers far exceed the chimneys still standing amid the ashes.
A massive debris cleanup continues in areas destroyed last month by the most destructive wildfires in U.S. history, which killed 23 people in the county and destroyed over 5,100 homes.
By Sunday, debris workers had completed an initial cleanup of 250 county homesites, said Rick Brown, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency overseeing debris removal. Those properties still await test results to determine whether more soil must be scraped away in order to clean up any remaining toxics, he said.
But the burned cars don’t get thrown in with the other debris. They will be hauled to a wrecking yard and recycled.
Darren Gainer, superintendent for ECC, the Burlingame-based contractor handling the homesite cleanup for the Corps, calculated Coffey Park will average one to two wrecked vehicles for each of its roughly 1,000 burned homesites.
“That gives us about 1,500 cars,” Gainer said, “not including what’s in the streets.” One homesite alone had 18 cars, he said.
In the neighborhood, ECC is responsible for removing the vehicles destroyed on private property — at least those lots where the homeowners have signed right-of-entry cleanup agreements with local and federal governments. The Santa Rosa Police Department is tasked with hauling away cars that burned on public streets.
In either case, a single wrecking company is collecting the metal remains in Coffey Park. Creams Dismantling, Towing and Scrap on Monday used Zarate and other workers there to load the street wrecks for the police department.
Creams is one of the few companies willing to take burned cars, Gainer said.
The wrecking company is removing the cars on city streets at no cost and has yet to sign a contract with the federal cleanup effort for its expenses, said general manager Kyle Abe. Creams, which has two yards in and near Santa Rosa, also is accepting burned cars from around the county at no cost, if owners can deliver the vehicle and provide the title and other needed information.
Abe warned burned car owners that their headaches won’t end when the vehicles are towed away unless they provide FEMA or Creams with what is known as a “nonrepairable vehicle certificate” from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Unless a licensed dismantler files that and related documentation with the DMV, he said, the owner can still get billed for registration fees for a car that no longer exists.
The wrecked vehicles eventually will get crushed and run through a shredder to separate out the steel, aluminum and other metals.
“A lot of them will turn back into cars,” he said.
Abe said one state official told him up to 9,000 cars burned in the region.
In Coffey Park, the cars and trucks burned so completely that few still have their vehicle identification numbers. Abe said that of the first vehicles 200 hauled, only three could be identified.