What I Learned Working on Disaster Debris Removal

As debris and ashes are cleared away, animals return and new plants spring forth.

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

before, during, and after debris removal.

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

Debris removal crews hard at work.

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

Playground and home rebuilding

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.

— Chris McSwain
Posted on Dec 30, 2019

Summary: 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.