Cleaning up

Photo by Robert Speer

Potential workers learn the ropes for jobs in Camp Fire-scarred Butte County.

For the approximately 50 men and women gathered in a large Butte College classroom on Monday (Jan. 28), the devastation wrought by the Camp Fire offered an unexpected opportunity: the possibility of snagging a well-paying job.

These are some of the people who will be cleaning up the tons of debris left from the fire. They were gathered at the Butte College Training Place, at the corner of the Skyway and Notre Dame Boulevard in Chico, for the first day of a five-day, 40-hour training session that will be the initial step in certifying them to do the work.

Qualified workers are in demand these days. There is so much debris resulting from the Camp Fire that CalRecycle, which is managing the removal, estimates cleanup will take at least a year.

The work can be dangerous. Much of the ash contains hazardous chemicals; the training program is designed to teach workers how to handle the debris safely and what to do in case of emergencies.

Three large companies have been selected to be the prime contractors, Butte County spokeswoman Casey Hatcher said during a recent business recovery forum. Two of the “primes,” as they are called, will focus on the town of Paradise, while the third will clean up sites in unincorporated areas.

The two covering Paradise are Bay Area-based ECC Constructors LLC and SPSG Partners JV (each estimated to make $750 million), according to the CalRecycle website. The third, Ceres Environmental Services Inc., dba Environmental & Demolition Services Group, out of Florida, will cover the rest ($200 million). ECC is working on cleanup for the Carr Fire as well.

Each will be working with a number of subcontractors, and all will be hiring. And, because they are effectively extensions of the state, their employees will be paid the prevailing wage.

Annie Rafferty, director of the Training Place, said prevailing wages can run from $55 to $75 an hour. That’s a welcome incentive for those who signed up for the training. Most of them are unemployed or underemployed, conditions that qualify them to have their fees and expenses, which can total as much as $1,000, waived entirely.

All cleanup done by the state will be free to property owners, but it will be done according to the state’s timetable. Sites near waterways and schools, for example, will be given higher priority than, say, residences on flat ground.

Property owners who prefer not to use the state’s cleanup services are able to hire a private “alternative” contractor to do the work.

Trainees who aren’t hired by one of the primes still can work for one of the alternatives, but not at prevailing wages. They can expect to earn from $20 to $30 an hour, Rafferty said.

One of the things she’s noticed is that many of the trainees—30 percent or more—are from Paradise. While they are motivated by the potential of good pay, they also have a heartfelt desire to help their community rebuild.

Phase I of the cleanup, which was completed this week, focused on clearing commercial and residential sites of household hazardous waste such as propane tanks, batteries, paint, herbicides, asbestos siding and e-waste.

Phase II, the removal of pretty much everything else that burned, started Wednesday (Jan. 29)—and that is where the trainees come in. Once they complete the certification process—along with a further OSHA 10-hour safety course and a written fitness test—they get sized for a breathing mask and are good to go.

In coming weeks, the Training Place will host a job fair bringing contractors and workers together. Later in the year, when cleanup is nearly done, it will begin training workers in construction so they can help rebuild the Ridge area.