PD Editorial: Army Corps plan offers best chance for quick cleanup

Burned homes along Saint Andrews Drive and Cross Creek in Fountaingrove. (CHAD SURMICK / The Press Democrat)


Nearly a month has passed since the fires began, and many are still dealing with the shock of it all. Nonetheless, the clock is ticking. Owners of homes in Santa Rosa and elsewhere in Sonoma County that were destroyed now have less than a week to make their biggest decision so far — whether they will sign up for a government-sponsored cleanup program for their site or plan to go it alone with a private contractor.

It’s not an easy choice. Either path presents some risk.

Some homeowners resent the fact that they are being pressured to make a decision so soon. The deadline for signing up for the government-led cleanup is Monday. The frustration is understandable. But so is the need for city and county officials to push ahead with the cleanup as soon as possible and to set a deadline for participation. Many owners have homeowner policies that cover their relocation costs for only up to two years. Meanwhile, many of these sites contain toxic materials that need to be removed before the rainy season begins in earnest. Officials say the longer they wait, the higher the costs will be as well.

We acknowledge that every property and every property owner is different. But given the enormity of the devastation of this area and the many challenges ahead, there seems little doubt that the best alternative for the majority of homeowners is to sign up for the government-sponsored plan for cleaning the sites. Here’s why.

First, the government program offers the swiftest solution. Contractors with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, working in coordination with local officials, the state Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, would take on the task of clearing all debris and some soil from the sites and removing the foundations and any trees that are found to be hazardous. Officials hope to have the work done by early 2018.

Second, for many it also may be the less expensive option. For those who are uninsured or underinsured, the cleanup will be free. For others who have homeowners policies that cover debris removal, the government agencies will seek reimbursement directly from their insurers. Officials say the work will come with no out-of-pocket costs to fire victims. If removal costs are more than what insurance covers, the homeowner will not be charged the difference.

Finally, it also offers the best chance of getting started with rebuilding sooner. There will be few benefits of being the last to rebuild. Critics say that homeowners should hold out for having a private contractor do the cleanup work. But homeowners need to have an honest discussion about how soon that would happen. Many property owners are having a hard time getting engineers to check out the soundness of their foundations as well as getting private contractors give them estimates on debris removal. We doubt it will be any easier getting the work actually done.

Those opposed to the government plan also contend that government debris cleanups have damaged septic systems and other fixtures on properties in the past. But when property owners sign up for the cleanup, they are encouraged to point out the location of any wells, septic systems, ponds and other structures as well as the locations of sewer lines, power, gas and cable lines if they know. In general, pools, retaining walls and foundation piers will not be removed under the government program.

As we noted above, either path presents some risk. But the greatest risk is waiting and hoping that a better option will come along — and ending up months from now with a property that’s still covered with debris. We need to get these properties cleared up quickly — and get on with rebuilding our community.