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Government cleanup of North Bay wildfire ruins to be complete in May

Cleanup of debris from the North Bay wildfires is 99 percent complete, but federal, state and local officials said Thursday there is still much reclamation work to be done in the wake of October infernos that destroyed more than 6,000 homes.

“We are here today to mark a milestone,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said, calling the removal of 2.2 million tons of debris from Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties in seven months “unprecedented.”

Coursey opened a televised news conference Thursday morning on the concrete apron in front of Fire Department Station 10 in southwest Santa Rosa.

“We do have a long road ahead of us,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “It is about rebuilding people’s lives.”

The four-county government cleanup has cost more than $1.3 billion, officials said.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Office of Emergency Services, said it was the largest debris cleanup since the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco and “one of the most complicated we’ve seen in our country.”

The government cleanup is 99 percent complete, he said, with “a handful of properties that need to be addressed.”

And when all the ash, concrete and other debris from nearly 4,500 burned home sites is removed, “we’ll still be here to help our communities rebuild,” Ghilarducci said.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said.

Overall, the fires destroyed 6,190 homes in the four-county region.

An unknown share of those properties opted out of the free government program managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and pursued private cleanup.

“We were truly in uncharted waters and we were improvising as we go,” said Col. Eric McFadden, deputy commander of the Corps’ South Pacific Division.

The 2.2 million tons of debris was scraped off 314 square miles of property and equaled the weight of more than two Golden Gate bridges, the Army Corps said.

Officials said they expect to have all the government debris removal done by the end of May.

Two properties that haven’t been touched by the cleanup are on Alpine Road north of Santa Rosa and cannot be reached until the Office of Emergency Services installs a temporary bridge over Mark West Creek, Ghilarducci said.

In Santa Rosa, owners of 419 properties opted out of the government cleanup program, and three - two homes and an apartment building - did not get the work done on time and are now being handled under the city’s abatement process, said Paul Lowenthal, assistant fire marshal.

Coursey said the city is “fully into recovery mode” with 117 homes under construction, while permits have been granted for 85 new homes and 163 owners are in the process of obtaining permits.

Santa Rosa lost more than 3,000 homes in the October wildfires.

The first phase of post-fire cleanup involved a survey and removal of more than 2,600 tons of household hazardous waste from nearly 6,600 properties in the four counties by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency also removed almost 25,000 cubic yards of asbestos-containing material from 724 properties, said Enrique Manzanilla, director of the EPA’s Region 9 Superfund Division.

Bill Roche, a coordinating officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said his office would remain involved in helping to “coordinate recovery solutions.”

“We know emphatically that people are still hurting,” he said.

The Small Business Administration has made 1,200 loans totaling $155 million, Roche said.

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

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