Sonoma County fire cleanup weighs heavy on landfill
Although nearly 260 destroyed homesites had been cleared of their post-fire debris in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood through Nov. 19, it represents less than a quarter of the burned properties in one corner of the devastating 36,807-acre Tubbs fire.
Just those cleared sites, however, produced a mountain of ash, twisted metal and charred wood — nearly 50,000 tons, according to county officials, with all of it going to Sonoma County’s Central Landfill.
The dump west of Cotati is the main disposal site for what local and state officials are calling the biggest debris removal from a wildfire in California history.
The scorched remains of more than 5,100 Sonoma County homes are bound for the Mecham Road location for burial — loads that have spiked daily traffic from heavy-duty commercial trucks and could burn through the life expectancy for one of the North Coast’s few operating landfills between Petaluma and the Oregon border.
Other than to confirm an increase of inflows from fire debris, a spokesman for Republic Services, the Arizona-based waste giant that operates the county-owned dump, declined to offer specifics about the number of trucks or how much material is now coming through the gates. He added that it presented no need for worries over capacity.
“From where we stand, as the operators, we are not concerned,” said Russ Knocke, Republic’s vice president of communications and public affairs. “Without a doubt it’s something that will factor into overall capacity at the site, but in terms of cause for immediate concern, again, I would say no.”
Still, to handle the additional level of waste and the sudden need for a place to unload it, Republic Services requested a four-month-long emergency waiver at the end of October for its daily weight maximums. Without that, only 2,500 tons of materials from a maximum of 900 trucks are permitted each business day.
Under operations covered by the emergency waiver, on the single biggest disposal day since the fire, the Central Landfill accepted 5,800 tons — about six times the most recent year’s pre-fire average. That compares to roughly 1,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day in 2016, and less than 860 tons daily in 2015.
Since the cleanup process started in earnest this month, the queue of long-bed trailer dump trucks filled to the brim with ash and rubble starts soon after the site’s 7 a.m. opening.
To accommodate that, Republic Services has increased its staff at the site, added another scale for the inbound loads of licensed fire debris contractors and extended its business day from eight to 10 hours, as well as opened its doors on Sundays for the government contractors.
Estimates from the county and CalRecycle, which oversees the state’s waste-reduction programs and permits landfills, are that each destroyed residential lot will total 200 tons of ash and debris — 100 of which will head to the local landfill. That figure presumes the sorting of recyclables such as unspoiled metal, wood and concrete by contractors at homesites to prevent those materials from also going directly into the dump, and is also considered both preliminary and conservative.
“It’s a little bit of a moving target,” said Trish Pisenti, the county’s integrated waste division manager. “That’s very ballpark, but we’re projecting approximately 1 million tons of debris — half recycled and half to the landfill.”