Next month, the Northern California community of Paradise and will commemorate a somber anniversary: On Nov. 8, 2018, the town burned to the ground. Nearly 11,000 properties were erased in the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in state history, which took 85 lives.
Now, as California braces for peak fire season, the most extensive post-fire cleanup it has ever taken on is nearly complete. Crews have hauled off more than 3.6 million tons of debris - twice what was removed from the World Trade Center site after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.
But the danger was not extinguished when the last flame was doused. After the Camp fire burned through the town along a wooded ridge, it left behind a blight on the environment: a tainted water supply, unhealthful air and soil that contains heavy metals or toxic chemicals. The city still advises residents not to drink tap water.
The painstaking and expensive cleanup process - more than $1 billion in public money spent so far from an allocated $1.75 billion - has been necessary not just to allow residents to rebuild and schools and businesses to reopen, but also to make Paradise environmentally safe. Potential dangers still lurk for those among the 27,000 former residents who are resuming their lives in town and, more acutely, for the hundreds of workers who have been sifting through the fire remnants, sorting and removing charred hulks of cars, mobile homes, melted metal and tons of dirt.
The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health enforces requirements for workers to wear safety gear, lending an otherworldly aspect to Paradise: The already-barren landscape is teeming with people in white protective suits and booties, wearing hard hats and breathing through respirators.
If it seems like overkill, it's not.
“Think about all the things in a house,” said David Hornung, who oversaw Occupational Safety and Health's response to the Tubbs fire that ravaged the Sonoma County city of Santa Rosa in October 2017. “There are televisions, electronics, dishwashers; it's really complex.” Computers and other electronics contain lead, mercury, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals.
“Then you have plastics and composite material,” which may release hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide and heavy metals when burned. “You get a real complex mixture of chemicals.”
Debris cleanup is free to residents who register with local authorities, on a first-come-first-served basis. Generally, however, work on schools and public buildings has taken priority. The state hires specialized companies to do the work.
The Camp fire was caused by utility equipment owned by Pacific Gas and Electric, which has agreed to pay billions in damage claims and is preparing widespread power shutoffs in hopes of preventing more blazes. Some Paradise residents have chosen to pay for cleanup work themselves or use their homeowners' insurance, potentially affording them a faster turnaround. Temporary fencing around town is plastered with phone numbers of cleanup companies advertising their availability.
CalRecycle officials say they are unaware of another state or country that operates a similarly extensive post-wildfire environmental cleanup. The program has evolved since 2007, in the wake of a huge firestorm across Southern California, into a sophisticated machine involving numerous state agencies, led by the Office of Emergency Services and CalRecycle, which have devised a step-by-step protocol.
Pauline Totten, who supervises fire debris removal projects for CalRecycle, has been on the Paradise job since January. Her hard hat is speckled with decals commemorating work on previous fires, but the scope of this cleanup is unprecedented, she said.
“Normally we have one contractor. On this we have three,” she said.As many as 3,000 workers took part in the project, officials said.
After nine months, the work is winding down, with 99% of the sites in Paradise cleared. On a recent day, crews were tackling the last of the major debris areas. Totten watched as machines scraped layers of soil and plopped their loads into lines of dump trucks idling along the town's main drag. A worker trained a powerful hose on the piles of dirt to keep the dust down.
Work is performed parcel by parcel, in prescribed phases. First, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control removes such hazardous waste as propane tanks and asbestos, commonly found in older buildings. Other state agencies collect air samples.