Wildfire Debris Removal and Recovery Operations
CalRecycle implements the Consolidated Debris Removal Program:
- With the leadership of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services
- In collaboration with local governments, state, and federal partners.
Wildfire debris must be safely removed to prevent more harm to you and your community.
Phase 1: Visible household hazardous waste removal happens right away.
Phase 2: Remaining ash and debris removal follows soon after.
Phase 1 | Household Hazardous Waste Removal
California Department of Toxic Substances Control or US Environmental Protection Agency
To reduce public and recovery workers’ toxic exposure, visible household hazardous waste and bulk asbestos are removed from burned properties.
- Phase 1 only removes visible household hazardous waste.
- Toxic materials like lead, mercury, arsenic and asbestos remain under heavy debris and mixed into ash and soil.
- Crews follow strict health and safety protocols to protect themselves and your community from dangerous ash and debris.
- Phase 1 does not remove all asbestos. After Phase 1 completion, Phase 2 crews will conduct a full asbestos assessment and removal described below.
Phase 2 | Debris Removal
California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery
Site Assessment and Documentation
To maximize program safety and operational efficiency, state staff, along with environmental and archaeological professionals, visit each property to identify and document characteristics and conditions. With information provided by parcel owners on the program enrollment Right of Entry form, these assessments help inform debris removal strategies.
Assessment Teams Document the Following:
- Debris piles, including the primary structure and outbuildings
- Fire-damaged vehicles
- Wells and septic tanks
- Nearby streambeds and water sources
- Nesting birds and endangered species habitats
- Historical and cultural artifacts that should be protected during debris operations
- Safety hazards such as standing chimneys, walls, or fire-damaged trees
- Safe property access
Asbestos Assessment and Removal
Asbestos is usually found in debris from homes built before 1985 including:
- Stucco and exterior home siding
- Floor tile and linoleum
- Fireplaces, furnaces, and vent insulation
- Sheetrock and joint compound
- Cement pipe, concrete, and mortar
Asbestos may also be in homes built after 1985.
For the safety of crew members and the community, asbestos must be removed by specialized subcontractors before any debris removal can begin.
For about half of the properties, crews:
- Remove asbestos in safely sealed bags to keep it out of the air.
- Take it to special disposal sites.
To protect the public and community, crews:
- Tape off the ash footprint, allowing only workers fully covered from head to toe to enter.
- Divide debris into four categories and haul it to the correct disposal or recycling facility.
- Concrete, including the foundation
- Metal, including any vehicles
- Ash and debris
- The top 3-6 inches of contaminated soil
Soil Testing and Contaminated Soil Removal
After a fire, toxins like arsenic, lead, mercury, and chlorine seep into the top soil.
As part of the standard structural debris removal step, crews remove:
- Concrete foundations
- The top 3-6 inches of soil
How clean does the soil need to be?
Before debris removal, environmental scientists test the natural composition of soil in non-burned areas of the community to set cleanup goals.
Toxic materials like arsenic and mercury naturally occur in the environment at levels usually considered safe.
How is the soil tested?
Independent environmental scientists:
- Create a grid of flags.
- Take samples at each section to send to independent labs.
If one section tests high, scientists remove and test an additional three to six inches of soil.
The property is leveled once all sections of the grid test the cleanup goal.
Safety and integrity
The soil testing process has two goals.
- To leave a property safe for families, children, and pets to occupy.
- To protect groundwater, wildlife, and air quality.
These environmental scientists, laboratories, and crews work independently under separate contracts to ensure safety and integrity.
Also, soil removal is paid per site instead of by the weight of removed soil, so there is no incentive to remove more than needed.
Hazard Tree Removal
CalRecycle removes fire-damaged trees that may fall on public infrastructure, including roadways and schools, as well as trees that endanger the safety of debris removal crews.
Residential survivors, whether or not they have a destroyed structure, are eligible for this government-funded program.
What makes a tree eligible?
- At least six-inches in diameter when measured from chest high
- On a property that has submitted a Right of Entry Form
- Could fall on public property
- Has been assessed by an arborist with a Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ) from the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA)
Erosion control helps keep soil from washing away.
Erosion control may be added after soil tests are safe.
What will be done on the property?
After contaminated soil is removed, areas that contain ash are covered with “hydramulch,” a wood-based mulch that will not sprout.
Erosion control methods include:
- A non-sprouting, wood-based mulch may be added to soil-removed sections.
- Compost socks filled with seedless organic matter trap sediment from running into stream systems.
- Fiber roll, seed-free tubes protect perimeters.
- Fire-damaged retaining walls may remain to avoid more erosion damage.
When does the erosion control get removed?
Homeowners can keep, move, or discard erosion control measures.
Consult the local environmental health department.
State supervisors review site documentation, including right-of-entry forms, and inspect the property for:
- Complete removal of structural debris
- Removal of any marked hazard trees
- Any contractor equipment left behind
- Appropriate environmental protections, including erosion control
Contractors are not paid until each property has been inspected by a state program supervisor and determined to meet all program requirements.
Once the state approves the property, the county reviews it.
The county will send a letter to homeowners that the debris removal process is complete.
The county may provide the next steps in the rebuilding process.