California to fix sites where soil cleanup from October fires went too deep

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How to get help

Deadline for enrollment: May 31

Sonoma County property owners may report excavation concerns by calling 707-565-1222, by email to info@sonomacountyrecovers.org or by visiting the County Administrator’s Office at 575 Administration Drive, Suite 104A, Santa Rosa.

Mendocino County property owners may call 707-234-6076 for an assessment of their site.

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

The Tubbs fire came so close to Dave and Sue Sloat’s home at the edge of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa that it blistered the gray paint on the home’s back side while devouring a two-story barn, garage and granny unit.

The retired couple, who moved into the home four decades ago when it was bordered by orchards, took the loss in stride, so close to the more than 1,200 Coffey Park homes destroyed by the October wildfire.

But six months later, there was some emotion as excavators and dump trucks came to clear away the rubble, including remains of the 117-year-old barn that held many prized possessions, including a solid maple work bench made by Dave’s father and his own man cave on the second floor.

“It was hard to watch,” Sue Sloat said. “Everything Dave owns was in the barn.”

There was a second shock when the debris removal work, managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, left behind a foot-deep depression in the ground where the barn had stood.

Now the Sloats are among about 200 Sonoma County fire survivors who are awaiting help from an unprecedented state-sponsored remedial program aimed at replacing soil on lots where the initial cleanup dug too deeply.

In Mendocino County, where the “over-excavation” program started three weeks ago in response to homeowner complaints, 60 properties have qualified for the work. Some burn sites have been restored under the auspices of the state Office of Emergency Services.

Eric Lamoureux, an OES regional administrator, said there were cases in which the debris removal contractors working for the Army Corps “took a little more debris than we wanted them to.”

“We know what a finished site should look like,” he said.

The Corps has nearly completed debris removal from about 4,500 sites in four counties and is not involved in the remedial program, officials said.

An Orange County firm, Sukut Construction, is handling the soil refill work, Lamoureux said, noting that the firm and OES have teamed up on numerous debris removal projects in the past.

The scope of the October fire cleanup — the largest since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire — prompted OES to bring in the Army Corps, for the first time ever, to manage the initial work here, he said.

“It was a challenging operation,” Lamoureux said. “There are some sites where we didn’t quite meet the mark.”

Sue Phelps, whose family owned a Redwood Valley rental home burned to the ground in October, said she was delighted with the job done by Sukut.

“It’s picture perfect,” she said, describing the 2-acre site on East Road in the valley where 544 homes were destroyed and nine people died in the wind-driven wildfire.

Phelps said Corps officials told her 3 to 6 inches of soil would be removed, but the excavators gouged a hole up to 3 feet deep.

“To me it was as if this group had never worked on a cleanup like this,” she said.

Lamoureux said the characteristics of each site dictate the depth of the excavation, but if the hole is well over a foot deep, “we’re going to take a close look at it.”

Lee Howard, a Ukiah contractor, said he personally inspected seven Mendocino County sites that looked like cases of excessive excavation and presented his findings to the Board of Supervisors and OES.

“We were just seeing these tremendous holes,” he said, referring to sites where the digging went down 4 to 5 feet.

It would have cost the Phelps family $30,000 to $60,000 to restore their property, he said.

“Our government was not looking out for us,” Howard said.

The remedial work will be done at no cost to property owners, and the state will seek reimbursement for the expenses from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Lamoureux said.

No excessive excavation has been reported in Lake or Napa county, he said.

Paul Lowenthal, Santa Rosa assistant fire marshal, urged Sonoma County fire survivors to report concerns about excavation by the May 31 deadline.

Sites that appear to be eligible for remedial work are located around the county and city, including Fountaingrove and Coffey Park, which account more than half of the nearly 5,300 homes destroyed in Sonoma County. The state will send engineers out to assess the work at all the properties that request help.

“We want this to go as quickly as possible,” Lowenthal said.

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

How to get help

Deadline for enrollment: May 31

Sonoma County property owners may report excavation concerns by calling 707-565-1222, by email to info@sonomacountyrecovers.org or by visiting the County Administrator’s Office at 575 Administration Drive, Suite 104A, Santa Rosa.

Mendocino County property owners may call 707-234-6076 for an assessment of their site.

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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