$2 billion cleanup of Camp Fire begins — a first step toward rebuilding Paradise

‘Chimney tipping’ marks the beginning of cleanup in Paradise

The cleanup of Paradise moves to the next phase as workers begin knocking down the chimneys throughout the city on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.
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The cleanup of Paradise moves to the next phase as workers begin knocking down the chimneys throughout the city on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.

It’s chimney tipping time in Paradise.

After weeks of soil testing and other preliminary work, crews embarked Wednesday on the largest phase of what is believed to be the costliest disaster cleanup in California history: the $2 billion scraping of 14,000 properties burned in November’s deadly Camp Fire.

The year-long campaign began with the knocking down of thousands of charred chimneys that have stood for months like lonely sentinels over the ashen landscape.

On Roberts Road in Paradise, one of the first chimney-tipping crews rumbled onto the site of a former 945-square-foot home carting a Bobcat excavator trailed by a watering truck.

The tricky nature of the job was evident from the get-go. It took a half hour for crews to prep the Bobcat and a watering truck on the rutted Roberts Road hillside. At one point, the pickup truck carrying the Bobcat skittered out of control a few yards downhill, its back tires lifting off the ground from the weight of the Bobcat as workers tried to roll it off the truck’s trailer bed.

The excavator, though, made quick work of the chimney. A brief nudge from the back of a mechanical claw was enough to collapse the structure into what likely was once a living room.

Matt Long, a project manager with ECC Constructors, one of three debris removal companies hired by the state of California, watched it fall. It’s about structural integrity, or lack thereof, he said. “The fire heats them up so much, they just crumble,” he said.

Chimneys must be toppled first so crews can check for asbestos in the fire boxes and flues, state officials said, and so that debris cleanup workers later don’t have to work around an unstable two-story brick pillar.

“They are a hazard just standing there, so they need to be knocked over,” said August Ochabauer, vice president of ECC Constructors.

Over the next year, more than 100,000 truckloads of debris and recyclable concrete and steel will be carted off the hill and brought to Northern California landfills and recycling centers. Each load will be “burrito wrapped” in thick plastic sheets, enclosed at the top, to keep ashes from flying in transit.

Each property will require one to three days of cleaning and scraping. Officials estimate they’ll remove an average of 350 tons of debris per property. That includes house foundations and contaminated soil underneath, but not swimming pools.

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The first chimney is knocked down on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019 on Roberts Road in Paradise as part of the first significant phase of the city’s cleanup. Hector Amezcua

The six-day-per-week cleanup will represent the sternest test yet of the state’s ability to respond quickly to get displaced residents back on their land, and will likely try the patience of Butte County residents who must deal with daily truck convoys. It is being overseen by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, or CalRecycle. Crews have already removed household contaminants from burned home sites.

Christine Palmer, whose home was the only one left standing on her block, watched, heartened, as crews knocked down a chimney across the dirt road Wednesday. “I’m so glad you’re doing (this) street first,” she told a crewman.

She pointed to a hillside of destroyed homes.

“I don’t want to look out my window and look at all this,” she said. “It was so beautiful here.”

Paradise Mayor Jody Jones, who has advocated for rebuilding the devastated town, said the cleanup is a sign of hope.

“With all the burned-out cars, the chimneys and ash and debris, it’s hard to envision what we are going to be like afterward,” she said. “Once things are clean, it will be so much easier to see what we can be and what the future of Paradise can be.”

For many residents, though, it’s a moment of emotion and loss. Cleanup crews attempt to contact each owner before that property’s cleanup day. Some, like the Roberts Road property owner, decline to show up. For others, the emotional draw is strong. They will show up and sometimes ask crews to dig first in a certain spot, hoping to find a final memento from their former life.

Homeowners will be allowed back on their property soon after each is cleaned, officials with CalRecycle said, though that might mean waiting weeks while soil samples are tested.

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The debris removal faces one major uncertainty, however. Thursday is the deadline for property owners to sign up for the free government debris removal program. Officials have estimated 14,000 properties will require a complete cleaning. However, only 8,770 owners had filled out “right of entry” forms as of Tuesday. Another 105 have signed forms saying they intend to hire private contractors to do the work.

Those who fail to have their property cleaned face having liens placed on their property. “This isn’t optional,” Butte County Economic and Community Development Manager Casey Hatcher said. “If they don’t sign the right of entry form, or sign up for the alternative form, the town or county will come through and use our nuisance abatement process.”

Hatcher said county officials have not determined when they would start declaring properties as nuisances. “We don’t want that debris to languish on those properties,” she said. State officials have declined to say whether they will consider extending the deadline.

Hatcher said the devastation on the hill was so vast that many residents moved out of county, and even out of state. Butte officials have resorted to calling property owners in the last few weeks to try to get them to sign up. One of those doing the calling, Paradise Mayor Jones, says another possible reason for the low opt-in numbers is a skepticism about government programs in Butte County.

This chimney on Roberts Road in Paradise was the first one to be removed on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019, as part of cleanup of the devastation caused by the Camp Fire in November 2018. Hector Amezcua

As debris crews begin the cleanup, there are early signs of life in Paradise. Some residents have moved back into still-standing homes. Savemart is open. Starbucks is open, and its parking lot is often full. Both are using temporary water tanks. A Thai restaurant has opened. There are food trucks for the workers who have been in town since the fire.

The city has set a Feb. 22 date for the first of several public workshops to plan the town’s rebuild, the mayor said. That will include discussions of new design standards, building code requirements, a sewer system, and what rules should apply if residents want to put pre-manufactured homes on their property. “We want to make sure everything that gets built meets the wild-land urban interface standards,” Mayor Jones said. “Should we go beyond that? We want to have a conversation about that.”

Jones has her own community design priority: “I want to look at evacuation routes and places in town where we had little neighborhoods that only had one way to get out.”

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