Sonoma County fire cleanup weighs heavy on landfill

The dump west of Cotati is the main disposal site for what local and state officials are calling the biggest debris removal from a wildfire in California history.|

Although nearly 260 destroyed homesites had been cleared of their post-fire debris in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood through Nov. 19, it represents less than a quarter of the burned properties in one corner of the devastating 36,807-acre Tubbs fire.

Just those cleared sites, however, produced a mountain of ash, twisted metal and charred wood - nearly 50,000 tons, according to county officials, with all of it going to Sonoma County’s Central Landfill.

The dump west of Cotati is the main disposal site for what local and state officials are calling the biggest debris removal from a wildfire in California history.

The scorched remains of more than 5,100 Sonoma County homes are bound for the Mecham Road location for burial - loads that have spiked daily traffic from heavy-duty commercial trucks and could burn through the life expectancy for one of the North Coast’s few operating landfills between Petaluma and the Oregon border.

Other than to confirm an increase of inflows from fire debris, a spokesman for Republic Services, the Arizona-based waste giant that operates the county-owned dump, declined to offer specifics about the number of trucks or how much material is now coming through the gates. He added that it presented no need for worries over capacity.

“From where we stand, as the operators, we are not concerned,” said Russ Knocke, Republic’s vice president of communications and public affairs. “Without a doubt it’s something that will factor into overall capacity at the site, but in terms of cause for immediate concern, again, I would say no.”

Still, to handle the additional level of waste and the sudden need for a place to unload it, Republic Services requested a four-month-long emergency waiver at the end of October for its daily weight maximums. Without that, only 2,500 tons of materials from a maximum of 900 trucks are permitted each business day.

Under operations covered by the emergency waiver, on the single biggest disposal day since the fire, the Central Landfill accepted 5,800 tons - about six times the most recent year’s pre-fire average. That compares to roughly 1,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day in 2016, and less than 860 tons daily in 2015.

Since the cleanup process started in earnest this month, the queue of long-bed trailer dump trucks filled to the brim with ash and rubble starts soon after the site’s 7 a.m. opening.

To accommodate that, Republic Services has increased its staff at the site, added another scale for the inbound loads of licensed fire debris contractors and extended its business day from eight to 10 hours, as well as opened its doors on Sundays for the government contractors.

Estimates from the county and CalRecycle, which oversees the state’s waste-reduction programs and permits landfills, are that each destroyed residential lot will total 200 tons of ash and debris - 100 of which will head to the local landfill. That figure presumes the sorting of recyclables such as unspoiled metal, wood and concrete by contractors at homesites to prevent those materials from also going directly into the dump, and is also considered both preliminary and conservative.

“It’s a little bit of a moving target,” said Trish Pisenti, the county’s integrated waste division manager. “That’s very ballpark, but we’re projecting approximately 1 million tons of debris - half recycled and half to the landfill.”

How much of those recyclable materials - including reinforced steel for melting, trees for chipping, and home foundations and brick for crushing - will actually arrive at the landfill remains unknown. It could end up being much less than the county’s projection of a half-million tons.

“By the time materials come in from a fire cleanup, it’s pretty ratty stuff,” said Neal Bolton, a veteran solid waste consultant in Mariposa County whose company is helping in that area’s recovery from the Detwiler fire in July.

“It’s a burned garbage mix, and materials like wood can be so contaminated that it’s pretty worthless.”

Overall, North Coast officials familiar with the toll of past fire cleanups say it’s likely to be a challenging road ahead for Sonoma County.

The effects of destructive wildfires in neighboring Lake County over the past two years - the Valley, Rocky and Jerusalem fires in 2015, followed by the Clayton fire in 2016 - continue to be felt at the county-run East Lake Landfill.

The blazes destroyed thousands of structures that ended up in the landfill located in the city of Clearlake, knocking off several years of capacity and triggering expansion plans earlier than anticipated, according to Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown.

“We went from 12 years expected (capacity) down to about eight in a big hurry,” he said. “Even though the waste is a much greater number (in Sonoma), the percentages are relatively the same. Huge impacts.”

Even the sheer increase of pre- to post-fire hauler traffic into the waste site was significant, said Kris Byrd, who’s been with Lake County’s landfill for 15 years and as its manager since 2009.

What had typically been as few as 150 trucks delivering 200 tons of municipal solid waste per day jumped to at least 500 trucks daily with between 2,000 and 4,000 tons of fire debris.

“With our amount of homes, we lost four years of airspace,” said Byrd. “With double that amount of homes there, they’ll probably lose six to eight years. Hopefully they’re ready for this.”

County Supervisor David Rabbitt said if earlier-than-expected expansion plans wind up being needed, “it just means that we have to build the next cell quicker than expected.

“It’s OK, it’s what it’s for and we’ll make it work,” he said. “And it’s still better to have it local than to truck it elsewhere, which would cost more, add a bit more greenhouse gas emissions and take longer.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at On Twitter @kfixler.

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