Sonoma County seeks to reassure residents receiving debris cleanup cost notices
Nearly two years after wildfire swept through parts of Sonoma County and Santa Rosa, destroying thousands of homes, some residents who opened their mailboxes in the past few days felt they had again been victimized.
But the debris removal bills sent out by the county, some topping $300,000, offer more in sticker shock than actual resident responsibility, despite a viral Facebook post that has stoked fear and drawn hundreds of comments over the weekend.
It’s unlikely any resident will be required to pay out of pocket for the removal, part of a $1.3 billion government-sponsored debris cleanup covering Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa and Lake, where the fires killed 40 people, destroyed about 6,200 homes and caused insured losses of $10 billion.
“We want to educate people. We don’t want people to be fearful,” said Michael Gossman, deputy county administrator for Sonoma County. “Nobody should have to pay any more than their insurance companies allot.”
Sonoma County last week sent the bills to insurance companies, along with emails to 2,700 residents, and officials plan to send another 1,000 notices this week. It’s part of an agreement the county has with the federal and state governments in which the county agrees to collect money and provide it to the involved agencies to pay back a portion of the costs associated with debris cleanup.
“Clearing over 1.4 million tons of debris was the first Herculean step we took towards helping our community rebuild from the fires,” Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said in a news release. “As part of our commitment to expediting this cleanup, we agreed to act as a pass-through agency to collect identified debris removal funds from insurance companies on behalf of CalOES and FEMA.”
Gossman said it’s important for residents to know the county doesn’t get any of the money. To that end, the county may be able to help residents recoup some insurance money in cases where they spent money out of pocket for private debris cleanup or to repair excavation work, he said.
Gossman said most insurance policies provide for $50,000 in debris removal, yet the average cost for cleanup among the 3,700 properties in Sonoma County that took advantage of the government-sponsored cleanup was $160,000. Residents will not be required to pay the difference, Gossman said.
Even fire survivors who tapped debris cleanup coverage for their rebuild projects likely won’t have to pay, Gossman said.
Here’s how someone could end up paying out of pocket:
“If they had insurance, insurance paid them out and they went and bought a speed boat, RV and a trip to Hawaii, they might have to pay,” Gossman said, giving a hypothetical example.
The freshly mailed letters represent just the most recent case of heartburn caused during the debris removal process, which saw government contractors clear 2.2 million tons of debris from more than 4,500 properties in the four affected counties.
More than 10% of the properties - over 600 landowners - filed complaints contending their land was over-excavated in work overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers. One woman’s property was so overexcavated that the foundation for her in-ground pool appeared to be an above-ground pool.
The damage was such that Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, sent a terse letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in August 2018 lambasting the agency for the botched cleanup, including overexcavation, damaged driveways and sidewalks and damaged wells and septic tanks, among other complaints.
The problems stemmed from wildfires that at the time were the costliest in U.S. history and the most destructive on record in California. The resulting cleanup was largest the since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire that destroyed 80% of the city. The Camp fire in Butte County last year eclipsed all of those marks.
Pete Parkinson, a former county planning director whose Bennett Ridge home east of Santa Rosa was destroyed in the Nuns fire, said he knew what to expect with the debris removal notice, so he didn’t panic when he got his $160,000 invoice.
He said he felt the program was a win-win for neighbors. When he saw people wringing their hands and complaining on the closed Facebook group Sonoma County Firestorm Update, Parkinson chimed in to straighten things out.
Part of it was his role as block captain, which allowed him to be part of the process to review the communications sent to residents. The other part was his long experience in county government, where well-intentioned initiatives can be misconstrued at public rollout.
“It always kind of irritates to see folks spreading disinformation and complaining about a program I feel is a good thing for our community,” Parkinson said. “I felt like I wanted to do what I could to help set the record straight.”
You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @tylersilvy.