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Santa Rosa, county set deadline for private fire debris cleanup

Sonoma County officials are trying to make sure all properties burned in the October wildfires are cleaned up by early April, regardless of who is performing the work.

The debris removal effort orchestrated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has made significant progress in recent months on the nearly 4,000 Sonoma County properties under its supervision.

Contractors have cleared 62   percent of those sites, putting the government effort on track to be finished by early April.

But approximately 1,100 other burned properties exist where owners opted to manage the cleanup by hiring private contractors to clean up their lots.

To make sure that work takes place in a similar time frame, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials have jointly set an April   9 deadline for the private cleanup of those properties.

City officials have received numerous complaints from residents whose lots have been cleared by government contractors but neighbors’ properties remain ash heaps, said Paul Lowenthal, the city’s assistant fire marshal.

“What we’re trying to do is to set the date that we’re eliminating the risk to the environment and protecting the people who’ve already returned their property to a state of cleanliness,” Lowenthal told the council Tuesday.

The October wildfires were the costliest in U.S. history, with insured losses approaching $10   billion in Northern California. In Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, they killed 40  people, destroyed more than 6,000  homes, triggering the state’s largest ever fire-cleanup effort.

The city and county are now trying to synchronize the deadlines for their respective cleanup processes.

Lowenthal explained that county health department officials set the April  9 deadline under its authority to protect public health. The debris left behind by the fires was declared a public health emergency before the flames were even extinguished. The county explained the department’s rationale for setting a deadline in a statement Wednesday.

“It is critical that the debris be safely and promptly removed to protect property owners, neighborhoods, and our watersheds,” said Christine Sosko, the county’s director of environmental health. All property owners “including commercial properties, are required to promptly remove the hazardous debris from their properties to ensure protection of public health.”

But the plan prompted some pushback from some council members Tuesday.

Under questioning from Councilman Tom Schwedhelm, Lowenthal acknowledged that neither the county nor the city had done any outreach to the survivors of the fires to see whether the April time frame was workable.

It appears that, even though the numbers are far smaller, the private clean-ups have been going much more slowly than those managed by the Army Corps.

Of the approximately 1,100  private clean-up applications received by the city and county, fewer than 200 have been completed, a process that includes lab test results, according to statistics from the city and county.

Lowenthal noted that unlike the county, at least the city was seeking input from its council, in a public forum.

“This is more of a public, I guess you could say, process, that we’re choosing to have here at the city than took place at the county,” Lowenthal said.

Schwedhelm suggested the council postpone setting the deadline to take some time to engage with fire victims.

But City Manager Sean McGlynn counseled against any delays.

Pushing the deadline back and causing the city and county to have different deadlines could have unanticipated consequences, such as people pulling out of the Army Corps cleanup for a private process with a more distant deadline, he said.

After it was pointed out the council could always extend the deadline later if necessary, and that exemptions to the deadline would be granted on a case-by-case basis, the council approved the deadline on a 5-2 vote. Schwedhelm and Councilwoman Julie Combs were opposed.