Can California and the federal government cooperate long enough to clean Paradise?

What it looks like when crews remove contaminated fire debris in Paradise

Specialized contractors begin removing the remains of the home of Robert and Joan Badour in Paradise on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. The home was destroyed in the Camp Fire in November. The property will be bare earth when they are finished.
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Specialized contractors begin removing the remains of the home of Robert and Joan Badour in Paradise on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. The home was destroyed in the Camp Fire in November. The property will be bare earth when they are finished.

Thrown together as disaster-response teammates in the new era of wildfires, California and federal officials have not exactly gotten along.

The state’s emergency services chief last summer accused the feds of “re-victimizing” wildfire survivors in Sonoma and Napa counties by allowing cleanup crews to damage property and over-scrape the remnants of homes destroyed in the blazes.

Around the same time, federal officials issued a report saying the state had done poor disaster fund management in recent years – and needed to be watched closely. Both sides pointedly suggested the other was inviting fraud.

Now, the two find themselves teaming up again, this time for what will be their toughest test ever, an estimated $2 billion to $3 billion year-long cleanup of ash and contaminated debris from massive fires in Butte, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

Unlike last year, when the feds managed the Sonoma and Napa cleanup, the state will take the lead in all fire zones, but will do so with federal assistance and a promise of federal funding. Under a disaster declaration, the federal government has agreed in principle to pay at least 75 percent of the cleanup cost.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, who rebuked the U.S. Army Corps last year over the North Bay fires, said the state should be more nimble than the feds, and will be sensitive to residents. He acknowledged a learning curve though.

“Are we perfect? No,” Ghildarducci said. “These disasters are so complicated.”

The state is resolute, though.

“It’s important we move efficiently,” he added. “The sooner we can get debris cleared, the sooner people can get their lives back and going again.”

Both California state emergency officials and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials in the West are on notice, however, from Washington, D.C.

A sign indicates that the property on the left has been cleared of fire debris on Tuesday in Paradise. The property on the right is waiting to be cleared. Paul Kitagaki Jr.

A Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report last August stated that California inadequately managed federal funds numerous times during disasters from 2013 to 2017, leading to $183 million in questionable costs. It called on FEMA managers to improve their oversight of California’s disaster expenditures, and to assist the state in order to avoid “potential fraud, waste or mismanagement.”

For his part, Ghildarducci said he plans to hire a set of outside auditors to review payments the state is making to debris cleanup program contractors, in part to avoid running afoul of federal regulations.

FEMA officials issued a brief emailed statement in February when asked about the relationship. “We support Cal OES with dollars and technical support to help Californians before, during, and after disasters. We have and will continue to work together to accomplish that mission.”

As the main cleanup begins, that federal-state relationship appears to have had new ups and downs.

Two months after the Camp Fire was put out, state toxic substance control officials reported they’d finished the first phase of cleanup ahead of schedule, and publicly noted they did it in cooperation with federal counterparts. That work involved clearing household hazardous waste from more than 13,000 fire-damaged properties in Paradise and the surrounding area, a preparatory step for the main and final debris cleanup that is now underway.

Lead state agencies on disaster recovery include OES, the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle), and the Department of Toxic Substances Control. On the federal side, FEMA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are offering the primary assistance.

But the cleanup effort ran into several headline-making problems right away, including complaints of “re-victimization” of Paradise-area fire survivors.

The latest problem stems from a local decision in December to allow some Paradise-area residents to live temporarily on their burned-out home sites in trailers or RVs until cleanup could take place. That prompted FEMA officials to say they might withhold disaster funding, telling state officials that having people live on burned sites in trailers undercut the legal designation of Paradise as a health and safety emergency site.

In February, during what one government observer said was the “rawest” meeting he’s seen, the Paradise town council voted to order several hundred people off their properties. One town council member, Melissa Schuster, who had bought a trailer to live on her property, voted in tears to evict herself and her neighbors.

Another Paradise resident, Lena Ingoglia, who had planned to live on family property in a trailer, said she feels like the victim of bad communication between the federal, state and local levels of government. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing,” she lamented.

The state also faced legal challenges from contractors contending the rushed debris-cleanup contract bid process, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was ill-conceived, arbitrary, and likely to lead to extra taxpayer expense.

That includes a formal protest from Kiewit Construction, the company the state turned to in dire straits two years ago to fix the broken Oroville Dam spillway, and its partner, Sacramento-based Teichert Construction, owner of the oldest active contractor’s license in California.

That partnership’s contract bid to clean Paradise was disqualified. Although the group has done extensive debris hauling, including some wildfire cleanup, state officials said Kiewit and Teichert failed to show they have done three “residential” debris jobs, which was the minimum standard the state set for bidders.

Attorneys for Kiewit and Teichert fired back, saying their companies have “the quality, fitness, capacity and experience” to handle the job, and contending that the state does not have the right to award a contract until a hearing officer can review legal challenges.

Another contractor said the fight is personal. In comments to The Bee, losing bidder Randy Perkins of AshBritt Environmental of Florida questioned whether OES head Ghilarducci made sure AshBritt – which was part of the North Bay cleanup that Ghilarducci criticized – would not get a contract.

Perkins also contended that the state’s bidding process allowed one of the three contract-winning companies, ECC Constructors, to use knowledge from its recent work cleaning Carr Fire debris in Redding to submit a bid that appears low but could balloon in the coming months. He vowed to take the fight to court, if needed.

The ECC price tag did in fact increase during the Carr Fire cleanup. Originally set at $57 million in September, a contract amendment in November increased the total maximum contract amount to $102 million.

CalRecycle officials said they expect the final number to end up between $92 million and $95 million. They say the increase occurred because the company cleaned 200 more home sites than anticipated, and the burned-out homes were larger than the state had dealt with previously, which increased the debris tonnage cost.

ECC won one of the three Paradise-area cleanup contracts at $359 million. It also won a $110 million contract on the Woolsey Fire in Southern California. An ECC formal response to the Camp Fire protests called the playing field even, the bid process fair, and said that its bid price will continue to prove over time to be lower than AshBritt’s.

Ghilarducci dismissed the bias charge. “I have no dog in that fight,” he said. “Once we contract with somebody, I expect them to do the job legally, effectively, fairly and to meet the metrics. Otherwise, I don’t care who the company is.”

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for nearly 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.