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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Like many Sonoma County residents, Martha Menth has a love-hate relationship with the columns of big-rig debris trucks jamming the highways these days in the ongoing wildfire recovery.

If not for the massive tractor-trailers, the third-grade teacher from Santa Rosa wouldn’t have been able to clear the ruins of her Mark West Springs home destroyed by the Tubbs fire.

But she’s not crazy about sharing the road with them. Their imposing presence — they can weigh 18 tons empty and now are usually filled with up to 20 tons of fire-cleared debris — has transformed a simple jaunt down the freeway in her SUV into a white-knuckle experience. Both her brother and sister have had close calls.

“I was thrilled when our property got cleared,” said the Kawana Springs Elementary School teacher. “But I can’t stand to drive around them. They’re intimidating. I give them a wide berth.”

The mixed feelings are common as cleanup from the October blazes shifts into high gear with an army of trucks transporting more than 1.3 million tons of charred rubble from Santa Rosa burn zones to landfills west of Cotati and farther south in Novato. It’s a first and important step toward rebuilding some of the nearly 6,000 lost homes.

But the debris-laden 18-wheelers are straining roads meant for lighter traffic while prompting safety concerns. Last month, a dump truck lost control on a steep stretch of Fountaingrove Parkway and slammed into six cars in a fiery crash that sent people to the hospital. On Saturday, the driver of an empty big rig overturned in the northbound lanes of Highway 101 in Petaluma, triggering other crashes and an hourslong traffic tie-up.

CHP officers said the driver may have fallen asleep at the wheel.

The crashes follow a December accident at the county landfill in which a dump truck driver was crushed to death by his own truck.

Exactly how many trucks are working the recovery and the number of crashes they’ve been linked to could not be determined. The CHP did not provide that information despite numerous requests.

However, police and industry sources estimated several hundred debris trucks hit local roads daily.

Anecdotally, CHP Officer John Fransen said it appears crashes have declined in the past few months.

The CHP has rolled out a series of “strike force” teams to check for commercial trucking violations. The teams also keep an eye on passenger vehicle drivers to make sure they aren’t cutting off trucks, failing to yield and not giving them room, Fransen said.

Sometimes, it’s not the trucks that cause the crashes, he said.

“Of course there’s a level of danger any time you’re driving these big vehicles,” Fransen said. “It’s just as important the motoring public is cautious. A little healthy fear is good.”

Santa Rosa police Sgt. Chad Heiser said he receives complaints about speeding trucks or trucks parked illegally. Officers are pulling over more trucks than usual, he said, but that’s just because there are more out there.

“Part of the problem is there’s a lot of heavy equipment right now where heavy equipment is not used to being seen, especially around Fountaingrove” Heiser said. “It’s a somewhat new thing drivers are dealing with.”

Toby Giacomini Jr., the owner of Petaluma-based Toby’s Trucking, said he runs 60 to 70 debris trucks a day making up to three trips each, some loaded with up to 20 tons of material. And his drivers all have at least two years’ experience and must meet safe-driving requirements.

“I take them out and test them myself,” said Giacomini, whose father started his business in 1942.

Giacomini said passenger cars generally don’t respect big rigs.

Often, people in cars will pull out in front of them, seemingly unaware they cannot stop as fast. Or they will talk on cellphones, ignoring trucks trying to maneuver in traffic.

“People are oblivious to what’s going on around them,” Giacomini said. “They think we can just stop on a dime.”

Readers responding to The Press Democrat’s online query about debris trucks expressed varied opinions. Some recounted near-misses in heavily traveled intersections around Coffey Park, Larkfield-Wikiup and Fountaingrove. Others said debris trucks are contributing to the deterioration of already poor road surfaces. Still others blamed them for longer lines at the landfill.

“Does it make me nervous? Honestly it makes me very nervous,” wrote Jasmine Karbowski. “I feel some of the drivers aren’t paying enough attention while going up and down the big hills. I’m a resident in the Coffey Park area and I see trucks flying down Hopper Road sometimes, and it’s just like, come on, slow down.”

Others, like Charles Osipowich, said the trucks are a necessity; there is no other way to do the job. He applauded contractors for removing the debris in such short time.

“Hats off to those who brought their trucks from near and far to help the communities on their roads to recovery!!” he wrote.

Menth said she supports the job recovery contractors are doing but the Fountaingrove crash put her on alert.

“They are everywhere,” Menth said. “I love them and I hate them.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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