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Deadline looms for homeowners on fire debris cleanup


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Gary and Laurel Quast’s Coffey Park home burned to the ground last month in the devastating Tubbs fire.

Aaron Groves and his wife, Judith Hong, saw their Fountaingrove home incinerated by the same inferno.

The two Santa Rosa couples have suffered very similar losses, but they’ve made very different decisions about the most pressing question now facing thousands of fire victims: How to go about cleaning up the ruins?

The Quasts have agreed to let contractors hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers remove the debris from their Monticello Court home through a program being heavily promoted as the fastest, easiest and most economical way for most people to clear their lots and get set to rebuild.

Groves and Hong have decided instead to have a private contractor remove the tons of potentially contaminated debris from their Shelter Glen Way property, figuring that it will give them more control over the process and a better chance of being left with a hillside site ready for rebuilding.

With the Monday deadline to sign up for the Army Corps cleanup program looming, thousands of people, many still reeling from the disaster, now face the same high-stakes decision.

As of 5 p.m. Friday, 3,063 property owners had turned in “right of entry” forms to Sonoma County officials allowing contractors hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to clean up their sites.

That’s 67 percent of the approximately 5,130 homes destroyed by the Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires in Sonoma County last month. So far, 1,933 of those applications have been approved, a process that sometimes requires additional documentation.

Those numbers are still below where officials would like them to be. Participation in similar disaster cleanup efforts has been around 90 percent, federal officials said.

A last-minute rush of applications may come, so there is still optimism that the government cleanup will involve a larger share of affected properties, said Rick Brown, spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We’re expecting a big push,” Brown said Saturday from one of the three community resource fairs being held this weekend to help people get information about the process.

The more people who participate, the more efficient the cleanup will be and the faster the community can begin rebuilding, he said.

All of which makes it seem like a pretty easy decision. For some it may be. For others it’s more complicated.

An easy call for some

For the Quasts, who have lived in their Coffey Park home for 30 years, the decision to let the Army Corps clean up their property was a pretty simply one.

Gary Quast, a retired Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. project manager, said opting in to the program made financial sense.

He doesn’t think his insurance policy would cover the entire cost of the cleanup were the couple to go it alone, and he doesn’t want to risk being forced to make up the difference.

“Why would you expose yourself to that kind of liability?” Quast said. “I don’t get it.”

The main benefit and chief selling point of having the Army Corps carry out the cleanup is that the federal government will cover the cost of the removal and remediation beyond what a homeowner’s policy provides.

Quast’s insurance policy, which is based on a formula of 5 percent of the property loss, is going to pay $20,000 toward debris removal and site cleanup, he said.

Experienced in project management, Quest said he’s inclined to believe estimates he’s heard that sites like his could cost $60,000 or more to clear and haul the debris to an approved landfill.

“I know how much one of those costs,” Quast said, pointing from his charred flagstone patio toward a yellow excavator loading debris into a dump truck a block away. “And $20,000 wasn’t going to cut it.”

But the decision wasn’t merely a financial one. Laurel, a social worker, wants to see her neighborhood heal, and can’t see how that can happen soon if the owners of the 1,300 homes that were lost in Coffey Park all do their own thing.

“We really want to see this be a positive community going forward, and this just seemed like the best way of achieving that goal,” she said.

The couple, who’ve been bouncing around staying with various friends for the past month, attended a few community meetings and heard concerns expressed about the government program, but none resonated with them.

A challenging task

There are stories from the Valley fire in Lake County two years ago of Army Corp crews damaging septic tanks, but the Quasts are on a city sewer. Concerns have also been aired about how demolition crews would deal with pools, but they don’t have one of those, either.

That’s not to say the process has been simple. Gary Quast said he can understand people’s fears upon reading the 10-page form, which he called “a big, scary contract,” full of lots of legalese seeming to require people to sign away their rights should crews bungle the job.

And, even getting that right-of-entry form approved has been a challenge for the couple. They applied originally as individuals, but since their home was held in a trust, the trust is what officially needed to agree to have the work done. But the trust documents burned up in the fire. The required copies of insurance policies were not exactly handy, either.

Now, with all the paperwork submitted, they’re waiting to hear when crews are supposed to start work.

Gary Quast, in a visit to his property this week, spotted a charred toolbox in what used to be his garage, where a Mini Cooper and a beloved classic Volkswagen Karmann Ghia were also destroyed. Quast squatted down, opened the toolbox and began reciting with a smile some of the many improvements he’d made to the home over the years.

There was the walnut butcher-block countertop he installed in the kitchen, retaining walls in the yard and the flagstone patio in back.

He seemed to catch himself, his voice trailing off.

“You’ve gotta just let it go,” he said.

Difference in priorities

Aaron Groves, a financial consultant, and Judith Hong, a dermatologist, moved to Santa Rosa in 2012 from San Francisco.

They were attracted by the area’s natural beauty, its warmer climate, easy access to other parts of the Bay Area, and — compared to the city — Santa Rosa’s greater affordability.

They fell in love with their large split-level Rincon Ridge home because it offered both the seclusion of being tucked into a grove of oak trees and stunning views overlooking Rincon Valley.

But they barely escaped in the first hours of the firestorm as the Tubbs fire roared up and over the ridge and into their neighborhood.

“It was not fun,” Groves said.

Returning to the home last week, Groves stressed that for many people the government-backed program may be the best thing, and that on balance it is probably a good thing for the community as a whole to have the federal government stepping in to help.

But for them, on a hillside lot with a multi-level foundation, the uncertainty about how the cleanup crews would perform the work and the condition in which they would leave the site has them wanting more control over the process.

“The big reservation we have about the Army Corps of Engineers cleanup is their main priority is getting the site cleared,” Groves said, “and our main priority is getting the site cleared and being able to rebuild.”

He’s convinced that a private contractor is going to be “more scientific about the foundation assessment” and will take a more thoughtful approach to the question of whether removing the entire foundation is necessary.

Calculated gamble

The Army Corps process, with its tight deadline, feels rushed to Groves, and he worries that there’s greater risk to acting too quickly.

“It’s really easy to make mistakes in fast thinking,” Groves said.

He’d rather see the fire debris removed immediately, but the foundation left in place, perhaps even until the spring, when he and his contractor will have a better sense of the best path forward.

Maybe tests will show the stem walls have to come out, but footings can remain, reducing the excavation costs and possible erosion problems if the entire foundation is removed right before the rainy season, he said.

It’s a calculated gamble that Groves feels comfortable making because while some homeowners feel the cleanup costs will far exceed their insurance, he’s estimating that his policy will pay up to $85,000 for removal and remediation.

Estimates he’s received for the cost of the work range from $60,000 to $80,000, he said.

“If it turns out to be $100,000, then we’re on the hook for $15,000,” Groves said.

But they could also save that much by having the job done right, without damage to driveways and with retaining walls spared by the fire left in place, he said.

He echoed others who’ve pressed government officials to extend the decision deadline another two weeks, giving him and many others the time to get more detailed construction estimates and feel better about their decisions.

But officials have said the Monday deadline will remain in place.

“We’ve made the decision, but we’ve made it based on estimates and assumptions, which is really not the way you want to go about something like this,” Groves said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.