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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Government contractors had to halt plans this week to ramp up their removal of debris from the October wildfires after federal officials received formal challenges to two contracts recently awarded for the work in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

The Army Corps of Engineers learned Tuesday night of the protests against the agreements covering the remainder of the public fire cleanup programs in Northern California. Both Burlingame-based ECC, which was awarded a $475 million contract for the Sonoma County cleanup, and Minnesota-based Ceres Environmental Services, which received a $160 million contract for the other three counties, had to suspend work associated with those agreements as a result, a Corps spokeswoman said.

The contract challenges, filed by Florida-based company AshBritt Inc. with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, call into question whether crews will be able to meet the Corps’ target dates for completing the fire cleanup. Corps officials hoped to have Sonoma County debris removed by the end of February, and the cleanup in all four counties was 43 percent finished as of Tuesday afternoon.

“We realize this mission is critically important,” said Corps spokeswoman Nancy Allen. “We are working with our state and federal partners to do everything we can to resolve this as quickly as possible, and we really want to enable the communities to recover.”

Allen said it was too soon to estimate what delay, if any, the contract challenges would cause, but some debris removal work remains unaffected.

The Corps had previously granted emergency orders to jump-start the debris removal, and AshBritt is still finishing its work authorized through that process.

An AshBritt representative couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday night.

ECC participated in the earlier stages of debris removal, too, but had already finished its initial work. Before the objections were filed, the company was preparing to send about 30 crews out Friday under the new contract, according to vice president of operations August Ochabauer.

“We had good momentum going,” Ochabauer said. “Our plan is to hit the ground running and ramp up very quickly and really get going at a very high level of productivity. When you have to put on the brakes, it’s always a little frustrating.”

About 150 union-trained equipment operators are ready to join the debris removal program as soon as they’re called, said Chris Snyder, district representative for Operating Engineers Local 3. Those workers, many of whom have already participated in the cleanup effort, will wait until the contract challenges are resolved.

“Our members are extremely frustrated, because they want to get out there and work, and a lot of them have been laid off,” Snyder said. “They’re just eager to get out there and be part of the cleanup and the rebuild of the community.”

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Gore said county officials “couldn’t be more disappointed” to hear about the possible delay. “Understanding the issues with government contracting, that everybody has a right to do bid protests and other things, I want to be very direct: It’s become a game of back-and-forth,” Gore said. “We’re sitting here with people’s lives basically held on pause because of this.” The holdup has also displeased some local residents eagerly waiting to have their properties cleared.

Barbara Lawler, who lost her Fountaingrove home during the fires, said her Vintage Circle property is one of a handful in her neighborhood that haven’t had their debris removed, and she doesn’t understand why. She and her husband don’t know whether they’ll be able to withstand the protracted process of rebuilding.

“This is just one step that we have to go through, but if I’m getting this frustrated with the debris removal portion of it, what else do I have to get frustrated with?” Lawler said. “This is horrendous. We have nothing. ... I feel like I’ve fallen through the cracks.”

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