Debris removal program starts in December in Sonoma County burn zones

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Property owners urged to sign up for Phase 2 of the State-Sponsored Consolidated Debris Removal Program (For the Walbridge, Meyers and Glass Fires)

December 15, 2020 is the deadline to file the Right of Entry form.

Guy Kovner | November 22, 2020

Owners of 432 Sonoma County properties hit by the Walbridge, Meyers and Glass wildfires are eligible for government-funded debris removal starting in December and county officials are urging them to register quickly for the program.

Contractors will clear debris, ash and hazardous trees from parcels where homes and outbuildings were destroyed or heavily damaged by the three blazes that struck in August and September.

Landowners must sign and submit a form granting workers access to their property by the official deadline of Dec. 15, but with just 35 forms submitted as of Friday, county officials are urging owners to complete the application process in the next two weeks.

Crews will be ready to start work Dec. 1 in a program that covers five other counties — Mendocino, Lake, Napa, Solano and Yolo — and won’t come to Sonoma County at first unless a “sufficient number” of property owners have registered, said Stuart Tiffen, a county spokesman said.

“They haven’t given us a specific number,” he said, expressing hope that Sonoma County could qualify for top priority.

“We’re in competition to get this done,” Tiffen said, noting the number of applications “is going up every day.”

The debris removal program, similar to the one that followed the 2017 wildfires, is funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and managed by the state Office of Emergency Services, with CalRecycle, another state agency, handling oversight of the contractors performing the work.

Homeowners pay nothing for the work, but must remit to the county any portion of their insurance proceeds earmarked for debris removal. If their policy includes no such designation, owners will pay the county from any insurance proceeds remaining after their homes are rebuilt.

Homes that are destroyed or left with one wall standing are eligible for the program, and homes with lesser damage may be deemed eligible on a case-by-case basis.

Garages, sheds and other outbuildings are eligible for cleanup if the square footage exceeds 120 square feet.

Foundations will be removed and trees that pose a danger to crews, or are dead or likely to die within five years due to the fire or threaten public right of way will be removed.

Swimming pools, driveways, retaining walls, patios, wells and septic tanks will not be removed in most cases.

Uninsured homeowners can be eligible for the program.

Property owners who want to handle debris removal at their own expense need not file what’s officially called a right-of-entry form, Tiffen said.

Those owners who choose to hire their own contractors must obtain the necessary permits and environmental clearances from local government before conducting any work, he said.

The Walbridge and Meyers fires combined scorched 57,300 acres and destroyed 159 homes and 298 structures in Sonoma County, while the Glass fire burned nearly 67,500 acres and destroyed 1,555 structures in Sonoma and Napa counties, including more than 330 homes in Sonoma County.

The tally of property losses in Santa Rosa and the county’s rural area outside cities for the debris removal program counts parcels rather than homes and some parcels have multiple homes, Tiffen said.

In the wake of the 2017 wildfires, a debris removal program managed by the Army Corps of Engineers cleared about 2 million tons of debris from nearly 3,600 Sonoma County parcels, equal to the weight of two Golden Gate Bridges.

That monthslong effort included hassles over the insurance payment obligation, the mandatory removal of foundations and complaints about contractors scraping away too much soil in the pursuit of profits.

“Everybody is coming at this more experienced than we were in 2017,” Tiffen said.

Once the public debris removal program begins, property owners will be able to use an online map to search for their property by address and view its current status, such as submitted right of entry form, soil sample pending or ready for rebuild.

The map will also indicate whether the property owner is participating in the public program or private cleanup option utilizing a licensed contractor.

The debris removal program follows the household hazardous waste removal sweep that is mandatory for all fire-damaged properties and requires no registration.

The sweep has covered 313 out of 455 parcels in the county’s rural area and 65 out of 67 parcels in Santa Rosa.

More than 6,000 properties in Sonoma County were swept for hazardous waste in 2017.

The sweep removes household waste that may pose a threat to human health, animals and the environment, such as herbicides, pesticides, batteries, gasoline, propane tanks, asbestos siding and paint.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.