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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Demolition crews began clearing debris from a handful of burned-out Coffey Park properties Monday, marking the official beginning of what is shaping up to be the largest cleanup effort in state history.

Workers wearing white protective suits and breathing masks used huge yellow excavators to claw through the remains of the ash-filled foundations of at least three properties.

They separated the charred remains of water heaters, garage doors, washing machines and bedsprings into piles of scrap metal, broke up concrete driveways, and sprayed water on everything while they worked to keep the toxic ash from drifting over the annihilated neighborhood in northwest Santa Rosa.

Though only a handful of sites were tackled Monday by contractors working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the milestone was a crucial one, said Eric Lamoureux, regional administrator for the state Office of Emergency Services.

“Anytime we can start a demolition operation, we’re on the road to returning that property to the homeowner so they can start to rebuild,” Lamoureux said.

The number of people signed up for the government-run cleanup effort swelled from 900 last week to over 1,600, with more than 900 now approved by the county, he said.

That’s still a far cry from the 5,300 homes that were lost in Sonoma County to the devastating Tubbs and Nuns wildfires last month, now the most damaging wildfires in the nation’s history.

But it’s significant progress, and authorities hope more people will sign up for the program before the Nov. 13 deadline to enroll, Lamoureux said.

The challenge in pulling that off stood just a few feet away from Lamoureux, however, in the form of Shawn Hermosillo, who watched the demolition work while holding his infant son.

Hermosillo’s friend, a painter, owned the home and chose to have the Army Corps clean up the property for him. But Hermosillo, a real estate agent who lost a house just a few blocks away, said he still hasn’t made up his mind.

“I’m so on the fence,” Hermosillo said. “There’s so many unknowns.”

Hermosillo isn’t one of those clinging to the delusion that their foundation is fine and doesn’t need to be removed. “My foundation is pretty much toast,” he said.

But he has innumerable questions about how the program works, how much it will cost, what control he might be giving up, and whether it would be cheaper to hire a private contractor to do the work.

“Whenever you get the government involved, it always makes me leery,” Hermosillo said, while also acknowledging the government has a huge role to play in disaster recovery.

Monday there were two contractors working in Coffey Park — Argonaut Constructors of Santa Rosa and Anvil Builders of San Francisco — both under the watchful eye of Army Corps of Engineers officials, who predicted a rapid ramp-up in activity.

“I think it’s going to increase exponentially later this week,” Army Corps spokesman Rick Brown said.

There are about 1,300 burned-out properties in Coffey Park alone, giving it the appearance of a war zone. The more people sign up, the more efficient the operation will be in many ways, Brown said. For example, all machinery that works on a property must be decontaminated before it moves to another site, unless the properties are adjoining. In that case, the workers can just go from one site to the next in succession, he said.

“The more of these lots in a row that we can get, the quicker this will go,” Brown said.

All the sites that were cleared Monday appeared to be one-offs, including properties on Hillary Court, Crimson Lane and Monticello Court.

How the work between contractors is divided up remains another question. The decision will likely be up to the main contractor, whom Brown declined to name. Others, however, have identified the main contractor as ECC, a Burlingame-based company that works closely with the Army Corps.

Brown said subcontractors have been instructed to refer media questions to the Army Corps, but he declined to state basic information about the cleanup effort, such as which landfills would receive debris from the fire zone.

On Friday, however, Sonoma County issued a list of landfills that will take ash and recycling centers that will take other material. The information is designed to help private contractors get the approvals they need to begin work, said Scott Alonso, spokesman for the Sonoma County Department of Public Health.

Alonso said the Sonoma County Central Landfill has been approved by the Water Quality Control Board to accept ash. The only other landfill on the list of sites approved within 50 miles of Santa Rosa was the Hay Road Landfill in Vacaville.

Alonso said he and others have been fielding questions all weekend from private contractors trying to digest the information released Friday and answer their clients’ questions.

“People have been waiting for this and they’re excited to get started,” Alonso said.

Nick Rinauro, one of the owners of Wrecking Crew Demolition of Sacramento, said he was “shocked” to see the crews contracted by the Army Corps working Monday because he thought no local landfills had been approved to receive ash.

Rinauro has signs up along the street in Coffey Park advertising his company’s services, and he said the response has been strong.

“I’m not knocking government by any means,” Rinauro said. “I just think there is plenty of work for government and private contractors.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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