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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Surveying the bare dirt where only fire-blackened trees stand in place of their homes, residents in one Fountaingrove neighborhood are perplexed by inconsistencies in the post-fire cleanup as excavators continue work in the upscale area where more than 1,500 homes were destroyed.

On at least three empty lots on Sedgemoore Drive, parts of concrete foundations still peek through the compacted brown soil, indicating the debris removal program managed by the Army Corps of Engineers left property owners with plenty of work to be done on their own.

On at least three other lots, the footprint of a home leveled by the October firestorm has been scraped clear of all ash, debris and concrete, leaving it ready for rebuilding.

Dennis Robbins, a retired financial adviser, considers the job on his property unfinished.

“It’s gotta come out,” he said, referring to the concrete stem wall he considers part of the foundation for his 3,500-square-foot custom-built home with a spectacular view of the Santa Rosa Plain and the coastal mountains beyond.

A stem wall is a vertical concrete supporting structure considered part of the foundation that provides stability and connects the foundation to walls.

As the cleanup got underway in October, two weeks after the fires, some property owners had groused about the requirement — stipulated in a contract they had to sign to participate in the government-funded program — that they allow foundations to be removed. The contract clearly states, however that “stem walls and retaining walls may be left on a case-by-case basis for erosion-control purposes.”

At a contentious press conference in Santa Rosa, Eric Lamoureux, a regional administrator with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, gave the reason for the requirement.

“We have determined foundations (burned in wildfires) are not safe for rebuilding,” he said, because the intense heat weakens the concrete.

Robbins felt compelled to take advantage of the free cleanup and said the work done on his property in January was “absolutely fantastic.” He blamed bureaucrats for the unfinished work, and said taxpayers will ultimately pay for it.

Robbins is certain it will cost much more to bring a contractor back to Fountaingrove than it would have if the contractor working for the Corps had taken out all the concrete.

“Very frustrating,” said Todd Wright, another Sedgemoore Drive homeowner. “They promised us full removal. That’s what some people got” but not others.

Whether the concrete left in the ground on Robbins’ property should have been removed is disputed.

The concrete “served as retaining walls, given the terrain of the area” and “may also have been serving as stem walls, which tied into the slab,” Nancy Allen, a Corps spokeswoman, said in an email.

She said program guidelines stated that foundations would be removed, but “stem walls, retaining walls and footers may be left. Walls or other features that go deeper than 24 inches will be cut and left in the ground.”

Allen said “every site is different,” adding that stem walls would be left in place because they stabilize the property and prevent erosion.

County Supervisor Susan Gorin said she is dismayed by residents’ reports of inconsistencies in the work at both Fountaingrove and Coffey Park, where the Corps completed cleanup of 1,228 properties Monday.

“FEMA hasn’t clearly explained what property owners should expect from the cleanup” nor given her that information, she said.

Gorin said she’s heard complaints about concrete left in the ground, with the Corps offering the same explanation for stem walls.

Cleanup of fire debris at 4,540 sites in Sonoma County is now nearly half completed, according to the Corps’ latest report, which also says more than 1 million tons of debris have been removed from Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties combined.

Robbins said he met with two Corps officials on his property and was told the work conformed with program standards.

“I’m aware of what they say, but I don’t agree with them. This is a foundation,” he said, pointing to rows of concrete even with the surface of his land.

There was no concrete pad beneath his house, Robbins said.

His lot has a slight slope, but two other lots with concrete left in the ground are too flat to justify a concern about erosion, he said.

A section of the Sonoma County Recovers website posted by the county and Santa Rosa says contractors will remove stem walls and foundations.

Allen said she could not comment on the condition of the five other Sedgemoore Lane lots in question because no one has reported them on the debris removal hotline and no inspections have been conducted.

The Corps is dealing with other property owners who have called about cleanup problems, she said. The hotline at 877-875-7681 is answered by Corps workers from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.

The cleanup program’s purpose is to “remove fire-related debris and enough soil to make sure the property is clean and environmentally safe for rebuilding,” Allen said.

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

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