Cleaning up a mess

Photo courtesy of Judy Martin

Carr Fire survivor Judy Martin submitted photos along with a letter of complaint after the state-run debris removal left her property with a huge hole where her modular home once stood.

When the Carr Fire swept through residential portions of Redding this past summer, Clyde Orr’s house was amid the destruction. Having grown up in the area, he wasn’t alone. Eleven of his family members’ homes perished as well. Still, he considers himself lucky.

“I was one of the people who had good insurance,” he said recently by phone. At first, Orr signed on to the state-run debris-cleanup program, but before work started, he decided to opt out. “My take on it was, I wanted to be in control of what happened on my property.”

Orr hired a private contractor to complete phase two of the cleanup process, which includes removal of soil, building materials, vehicles and other debris damaged by the fire. And he wants to share his story with Camp Fire survivors who are now contemplating the same options—to sign the state’s right-of-entry form or hire a private contractor.

The deadline to make that decision looms—those whose properties were affected by the Camp Fire have until Jan. 31 to submit a right-of-entry form or an application for a permit for an alternative debris-removal plan, requiring hiring a certified contractor.

If Orr could say one thing to Camp Fire survivors: “My advice would be to not believe everything the county and state are telling you about the cleanup program.”

Based on what he’s seen in the wake of the Carr Fire, on his family’s properties and through his involvement with the Northern California Fire Recovery Committee, the cleanup process has been less than ideal. The biggest problem, in his eyes, is that the contractors hired by CalRecycle, the agency in charge, are paid by the ton versus by the job. That’s an incentive to take as much “debris” as possible off each parcel. In Redding, it’s left people with huge pits to fill, broken infrastructure like septic systems and water lines, and no recourse, Orr said.

“The disaster relief was the disaster in Redding,” said Bill Davis, an attorney in Redding whose home also was destroyed in the Carr Fire. He’s particularly bothered by the indemnification clause on the right-of-entry form, which holds the state and its hired contractors harmless.

“They basically could blow your place up with a nuclear weapon and you can’t do anything about it,” he said.

The cleanup plan for the Carr and Camp fires, as outlined by the California Office of Emergency Services and CalRecycle, is essentially the same. Phase one, which is currently underway in Butte County, involves the removal of hazardous waste such as visible asbestos, propane tanks and substances like pesticides and paint. This is automatic, requiring no permissions.

Phase two is where the work in question comes in, requiring soil testing, crews with heavy equipment and the removal of several inches of soil, in addition to whatever is left of homes, vehicles and other burned materials. This phase is required, but landowners have the option to hire their own contractor.

“You can’t just leave it as is, because it’s a threat to the environment and health,” explained Lance Klug, public information officer for CalRecycle.

Debris-cleanup work for the properties affected by the Camp Fire is set to begin the week of Jan. 28, Klug said. CalRecycle is currently reviewing bids by contractors and plans to hire three of them, with each then hiring subcontractors. First, they’ll test the soil, then they’ll remove debris, then they’ll test again before issuing a notice of completion, he said.

Klug assured the CN&R that, despite the fact that contractors hired by CalRecycle are paid primarily by the ton, they will not scrape more soil off properties than necessary. Cal OES’ Eric Lamoureux likewise promised attendees at a recent meeting regarding debris removal of the same thing.

That has not, however, proven true for homeowners in Redding.

Orr’s aunt, Judy Martin, for example, had a modular home on her property. It had no foundation. Nonetheless, when she returned after the state-run crews had finished, she had a large hole where her home once stood.

“She got an estimate to relevel her land and compact the soil so she can rebuild—it’ll cost $16,000 before she can even begin to put a house on it,” Orr said. “They took so much unnecessary soil that it’s costing people tens of thousands of dollars.”

Davis, the attorney, has been helping people, including Orr’s family, document their issues with the cleanup. Many have filed official complaints with CalRecycle.

“I have lived on this property for 33 [years] with my husband, who passed away in 2016, and my 3 sons,” Martin’s complaint reads. “This was our home, but because of how much dirt was removed in the cleanup it is unlikely we will have the financial resources to rebuild.”

Davis is outraged. Like Orr, he hired a private contractor out of Chico to clean up his property. Both men said their bill, covered by insurance, was about $20,000. Neither had issues with the amount of soil removed.

Without insurance, however, he acknowledges that many people have no choice but to sign on to the state-run program. He and Orr said they hope Camp Fire survivors can take some cues from their neighbors to the north and stand up for themselves and be advocates for their land. Klug confirmed that landowners will be given 24 to 48 hours’ notice before work begins and that they are able to be present when that work is being done.

“My biggest piece of advice for people who opt in is to be strong and don’t let them push you around,” Orr said. “Hold your ground and don’t be afraid to say, ‘No, you’re not taking that.’”