Listed below are recent posts across all of CalRecyle's blogs.
After a catastrophic wildfire, getting “back to normal” is nearly impossible for any single property owner to handle. A family’s ability to rebuild—and the livability of the neighborhood—depends on what the family next door does, as well as the family next to them.
Todd Thalhamer at the site of the 2007 Boles Fire in Weed, Siskiyou County.
“Who wants to be the first house that’s developed, when you look out the window and all you see is nothing but ash and debris?” asks CalRecycle engineer Todd Thalhamer, the architect of a program that has cleaned up nearly 20,000 homes in the last decade. “When it comes right down to it, it’s a psychological issue—and a property value issue. If you clean up everything, you jump-start a community.”
The Integrated Waste Management Board, which later morphed into CalRecycle, started the Consolidated Debris Removal Program in 2007 to clean up the aftermath of the Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe. The majority of properties with affected homes drained into Angora Creek, which runs right into Lake Tahoe. This created an urgency to clean up debris before winter arrived and it washed into the famously clear and pristine lake. Crews were on the ground quickly. Firefighters extinguished most of the blaze by July 4. Ten days later, debris removal crews had the first home site cleared. The whole response effort was completed in three months.
Safe Enough for Our Own Children
From the beginning, this program balanced service to the homeowners, the community, and the environment. “At the time, I had a three-year-old,” Thalhamer recalled. “I’d tell the contractors, if it’s safe for my three-year-old to walk across this lot, then we know that a family is ready to rebuild.” Program staff have always valued this personal level of safety. This means cleaning up dangerous materials most homeowners don’t even realize lay in the ashes of their destroyed houses.
After a wildfire, property owners need experts to identify toxicity in the rubble and ashes.
A few of the invisible toxins common in residential burn scars include:
- Heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, zinc, and lead, which is especially high in homes built before 1978.
- Asbestos, which is present in most homes built before 1985 and in some newer homes as well.
- Hazardous materials such as propane tanks, air conditioners, batteries, pesticides, and herbicides are common in most homes.
For CalRecycle, the disaster debris removal program extends the department’s mission to ensure that California safely manages our materials—whether toxic and recyclable or not—to their best and highest use. It’s what the department does day in and day out. CalRecycle staff are experts in this. The debris removal program intensifies this effort in the service to communities recovering from tragedy.
The Go-To Crew After Disasters
In the years immediately following the 2007 Angora Fire, the debris removal team was only activated one time—for the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion. But in 2014, the Boles Fire in Siskiyou County swept into a neighborhood in Weed destroying over a hundred homes, echoing the devastation seven years previously in South Lake Tahoe. The Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) called on CalRecycle to respond, and the team has worked almost continuously on cleaning up wildfire debris since then.
Since 2014, CalRecycle has:
- Overseen 20 major disaster projects
- Removed 5.6 million tons of materials (65 percent from the 2019 clean up of the Camp Fire)
- Performed disaster recovery for 16 different counties, from Los Angeles to the Oregon border
- Cleaned and certified 17,297 properties as ready to rebuild in suburban neighborhoods, farms, mountain valley towns, scenic coastlines, and forested cabin areas.
We’re On a Mission from Cal OES
CalRecycle doesn’t take on these projects of its own volition. Cal OES must mission task CalRecycle before we can help. This can happen after Cal OES grants a request for assistance from a local jurisdiction in crisis. In fact, the only major incident in the past five years that CalRecycle didn’t mobilize to clean up was the 2017 North Bay fires, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handled.
For one key CalRecycle debris team member, the department has proven its expertise in clean up and managing the destroyed materials. “We’ve earned the confidence of others that we can handle projects this size with efficiency,” Alan Zamboanga said.
Zamboanga, who served as the finance chief or contract manager on most of the projects since 2014, points out that CalRecycle continues to demonstrate operational and financial efficiency, including the massive 11,000-property Camp Fire debris recovery project. “Because of our expertise and knowledge, we are the go-to people when it comes to wildfire debris.”
The 2007 Angora Fire Incident Management Team on the site of the last property cleaned.Posted on In the Loop by Chris McSwain on Feb 24, 2020
It’s been a year of firsts for me. As the newest information officer in CalRecycle’s Office of Public Affairs, it’s my job to tell CalRecycle’s stories. But before joining the Office of Public Affairs team, I was the finance chief for the Camp Fire debris removal project. I’ll have a lifetime of stories to tell about my work on the Camp Fire—and the first is how this challenge was the best I’ve ever accepted.
Last spring, I joined CalRecycle’s Wildfire Debris Removal team in Paradise, California. I had never been to Paradise, but I was very familiar with the Camp Fire. Like many Northern Californians, during November 2018, I had choked on the thick smoke from the country’s most devastating fire in a century. CalRecycle is often tasked with organizing, managing, implementing, and overseeing debris removal operations in support of local governments. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived to help oversee the project’s finances, but I found a dedicated team of cleanup crews that go the extra mile to help homeowners and communities recover.
Here are a few things I learned while working at the Camp Fire debris removal project in Paradise.
Results Are Immediately Visible
CalRecycle transforms properties after a fire:
From a disaster area riddled with invisible toxicity to a cleared property on which a family can rebuild their lives.
Office denizens at CalRecycle go to work every day and have a sense that their work is making a difference, but it’s rare that they get to see it in real time. During debris removal operations, crews on the ground experience the immediate changes they make in the lives of community members.
Residents saw everything they own destroyed. Our work gives them back a property that is certified and ready for rebuilding their new life. We give them a way forward.
We Aren’t Alone
Debris removal operations is more than just an interagency effort. In addition to the California Office of Emergency Services, nearly every CalEPA BDO had representatives that aided with the CalRecycle mission. CalTrans, CHP, California Fish and Wildlife, Department of Water Resources, local jurisdictions, and FEMA collaborated on the cleanup as well.
There is also a critical public-private partnership with experienced contractors and consultants adding their expertise to the operation.
While public-sector employees take the lead, we couldn’t finish the work without the added experience of technical experts from the private sector.
At its peak in Butte County, thousands of people were working toward a single goal. Only about a hundred were state employees.
“Second Responders” Are Truly Heroic
Even though the work is long and tiring, the cleanup crews never got jaded. Project managers take the time to recognize their efforts at weekly safety meetings, and it’s clear the crews care about helping Paradise recover. When asked to do so, debris removal crews sift through portions of ash looking for heirloom jewelry, or the remains of a vintage blacksmith shop, or anything left of a flower pot garden.
Crew members go beyond just removing debris and have taken to heart the mission of helping people search for their lost treasures and rebuild their lives.
The Environment Is Fragile, yet Resilient
Natural disasters leave a scar across the landscape, but if there is one thing that’s clear, it’s that plant life and wildlife bounce back more easily than homes and businesses. On an April visit to the Woolsey/Hills fire site in Los Angeles County, the super bloom was in full force, and it was nearly impossible to see the burn scar from the fire that happened just a few months before. In both Northern and Southern California, great care was taken to do no more damage to the environment.
In addition to allowing homeowners to rebuild, CalRecycle’s mission for wildfire cleanup is to remove debris that threatens public health and the environment. This allows the region’s flora and fauna to recover more quickly.
It’s Worth It Because We Care
Sometimes the days are long. Sometimes your own bed and your loved ones are just too far away. But knowing that the work you’re doing is necessary and matters, gets you up the next day.
There is a shared mission across agencies and sectors. Whether one chooses to make a career out of disaster recovery or volunteers to support the mission on a temporary basis, the experience will positively affect how you see your work and impact on the world.Posted on In the Loop by Chris McSwain on Dec 30, 2019
Chris and Michelle Friedman spent this past Thanksgiving in Santa Barbara with their daughter and four grandkids.
“It’s good to be with family during the holidays,” reflected Michelle.
Last year, their Thanksgiving had no tradition or comfort. They spent the weekend lodged in Redding after losing their Paradise home to the Camp Fire.
“Our hearts weren’t really into Thanksgiving,” explained Michelle. “We couldn’t enjoy it when we just lost so much.”
Last November, their house in Paradise was destroyed due to the Camp Fire. Their 1,900 square foot retirement dream home and almost all of their belongings had turned to ashes.
“That place felt like a vacation home in the mountains,” reflected Michelle. “We really loved it.”
Their house was one of nearly 11,000 homes in Butte County cleaned up by teams Cal OES and CalRecycle managed. After CalEPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control removed the most hazardous waste from burned properties, CalRecycle oversaw Phase 2, clearing away debris and ash from properties and recycling all concrete and anything else salvageable.
CalRecycle crews recently cleared more than 3.66 million tons, or 7.3 billion pounds, of ash, debris, metal, concrete, and contaminated soil.
“Our role is really critical with the survivors,” said Wes Minderman, CalRecycle Engineering Support Branch Chief. “We have a displaced community, these people have lost everything, and so our role and responsibility are to make sure that we do the debris removal, but we’re also sensitive to that fact. This is for the survivors. This is to assist them to recover and begin with the next step of their lives.”
Prior to the clean up of their property, the Friedmans were able to communicate with the project’s foreman, sharing floor plans and pictures of what the house used to look like.
“We knew they wouldn’t find much, but they took the time and had the concern to make sure that they were as thorough as they could be. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for. What they did was give us closure with the confidence that there wasn’t anything to be found, and that in itself is a gift to us,” said Michelle.Posted on In the Loop by Syd Fong on Dec 2, 2019