Restoring Communities, Creating Opportunities

Pacific States Environmental Contractors and Sukut Construction Cleanup the Communities Destroyed by the Valley & Butte Fires

Residents throughout most of California enjoy a Mediterranean style climate which is marked by warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters. Unfortunately, these dry summers often set the stage for wildfires later in the year.

More often than not though, these fires could burn hundreds of thousands of acres but only a few dozen structures might be lost. However with California in a drought state of emergency two of the most destructive fires in California history tore through Northern California in September 2015.

On September 9th, the Butte Fire ignited in Amador County and quickly spread into Calaveras County. More than 70,000 acres were blackened including the communities of Mountain Ranch, San Andreas, Mokelumne Hill and Glencoe.

Three days later, the Valley Fire erupted and scorched 76,000 acres in Lake County. The fire burned through the towns of Middletown, Cobb Mountain, Hidden Valley, and Anderson Springs, as well as parts of Napa and Sonoma Counties.

The remains of properties after the Valley fire.

The remains of properties after the Valley fire. Top images courtesy of Pacific States.

After month-long battles, both fires were fully contained by early October. But by then the destruction was immense. Six lives were lost, $2 billion in damages were recorded, nearly 2,900 structures were destroyed and thousands of lives were changed forever. The Butte wiped out 921 structures while 1,955 were lost in the Valley Fire, making them the seventh and third most destructive fires in California history.

Before CAL FIRE had fully contained either blaze, California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) set out to reclaim what was lost. Under an executive order of the Governor’s office, CalRecycle established Debris Removal Operations Plans. These plans standardized the best practices to remove debris and protect response workers, the surrounding communities, public health and the environment.

CalRecycle Operations Chief for the Valley Fire, Todd Thalhamer said “If you put the right team together it can work.” Thalhamer knows a little something about putting the right workforce together. Previously, he was the Operations Chief for the emergency cleanup work related to the Weed, Trinity, Rocky and Jerusalem fires.

The general contractors selected to be part of these teams were Pacific States Environmental Contractors for the Valley Fire and Sukut Construction at the Butte Fire. Both companies have proven track records of disaster response.

Sukut Construction has performed such work throughout California, from Rancho Bernardo to Tracy to Lake Tahoe. Pacific States’ most notable emergency work was at the Glenview Fire in San Bruno which was the result of a ruptured gas line in a residential neighborhood.

For an operation of this size, one of the main challenges is determining where to begin. “Our priority was to start with the areas that had the greatest human impact and that we could get to” stated Thalhamer.

Thalhamer is familiar with the area decimated by the Valley Fire. A graduate of Middletown High School, he worked as a union laborer to help build The Geysers. The Geysers, located between Middletown and Cobb Mountain, is the largest complex of geothermal power plants in the world. Five of the geothermal structures were damaged during the fire but are already scheduled to be rebuilt.

Adjacent lots in Middletown, CA. The property on the left was abandoned by the property owner while the property on the right was cleared by Pacific States crews.

Adjacent lots in Middletown, CA. The property on the left was abandoned by the property owner while the property on the right was cleared by Pacific States crews.

In the first week of October, six Pacific States debris removal crews got to work; four in Middletown and two in Hidden Valley. At that time, Cobb Mountain and Anderson Springs were still closed to the public.

Crews working to cleanup and restore properties wasted by the Butte Fire put boots on the ground in Mokelumne Hill and Mountain Ranch in October as well.

However, before the debris removal crews could step foot on any property, several steps had to be taken. First, the Department of Toxic and Substances Control (DTSC) did preliminary hazmat sweeps to identify and remove visible asbestos containing materials and any hazardous household waste such as gas tanks, pesticides, and chemical products.

Right-of-Entry permit

An example of the right-of-entry permits used to track progress for each property.

Once, the DTSC sweeps were complete, the respective county had to get a right-of-entry permit from the owner to restore their lots. The Butte fire required more than 800 entry permits while more than 1,300 were needed for the Valley cleanup.

After a right-of-entry permit was obtained, a sign was posted at each parcel to indicate the status of debris removal. A series of stickers were placed on the sign to give the homeowner and public an idea of the progress being made.

The next step is site documentation. Among other things, this includes identifying and marking property lines, utilities, and inspecting any remaining structures. After documentation is complete, asbestos sampling and abatement is performed if necessary. 224 lots on the Butte locations required asbestos abatement, while another 67 on the Valley parcels warranted abatement.

Laborers in tyvek suits and respirators clearing a property in Anderson Springs.

Laborers in tyvek suits and respirators clearing a property in Anderson Springs.

With the asbestos work complete, a five to six person debris removal crew, donned in level C protective attire and HEPA respirators, set out to work. Crews typically consist of four laborers and two operating engineers.

First, the debris is segregated. Metals and concrete are collected into separate piles for recycling. Burned out vehicles are disposed of or recycled. Nearly a third of the fire ruins are being recycled.

Clearing by hand

Laborers picking through the remains of a property in Calaveras County.

Next, the top three to six inches of soil is removed under the footprint of the ash.  The soil, ash and the remaining debris are collected and removed for disposal. Great care was taken during this process to recover as many personal mementos as possible. “In many cases, workers have had to delicately filter through soil and ash to find jewelry, coins and other valuables,” said Sukut Project Manager Chris Johnsen.

Once all the materials are hauled away for disposal or recycling, the lot is then graded. Now the soil is sampled to determine if the contaminants have been removed. If soil analysis results do not meet requirements, another layer of soil is removed and disposed of. This process repeats until the prescribed cleanup goal is met.

A cleared lot with straw wattle and erosion control matting in place.

A cleared lot with straw wattle and erosion control matting in place.

Soil erosion from burned out landscapes pose a threat to watersheds, so the final task for each lot is erosion control. Depending upon the slope of the property; hydroseeding, coconut erosion control blankets for steeper slopes, and straw wattle around perimeters are used to keep soils from running off.

To haul off the waste or recycling debris ten wheeler trucks were utilized. These sized trucks were passable across the many miles of unpaved, private roads and driveways. The Butte burn area is traced by more than 100 miles of private roads.

Laborers use long poles to maneuver the plastic sheeting into place.

Laborers use long poles to maneuver the plastic sheeting into place.

Each ten wheeler can haul ten to 12 cubic yards of material or up to 15 tons. The number of trucks for each site varied widely, but a typical single family lot can produce 12 to 14 tons of waste.

To protect the public, every load of waste was wrapped in plastic. The bed of the ten wheeler was lined with a sheet of plastic. After the debris was placed in the bottom of the truck bed, another sheet of plastic was placed over the top of the loaded waste.

In late January, a Sukut unit came across a parcel with a tremendous amount of debris. Most of it had probably been another man’s trash, but it was this owner’s treasure – collected over many, many years.

The partial collection of a property owner's materials destroyed by the Butte Fire.

The partial collection of a property owner’s materials destroyed by the Butte Fire. Photos courtesy of Sukut Construction.

The crew estimated it was going to take 170 trucks to haul away the waste from this troublesome lot. In order to gain access the property, the staff worked for a day and a half to remove the debris from the driveway alone. Additionally, the driveway, only tens of yards long, had to be rebuilt in order to support the weight of the 10 wheelers. It took nine loads of 1.5 inch rock to reconstruct the temporary lane. Luckily this location was an exception and not a typical lot.

Before a worker could set foot on the Butte or Valley ‘job sites’ every worker needed Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER) training. Typically, LIUNA training centers provide an 80-our HAZWOPER training course, which is double OSHA requirements. However, the Laborers’ Training & Retraining Trust for Northern California had to scale back to the 40-hour minimums to help the contractors build the manpower necessary for the emergency work.

“The Training Center has been tremendous,” said Local 324 Business Manager Randy LeMoine. “We initiated more than 200 people into Local 324 to help with the response in Lake County. Without the extra effort by the Training Center’s staff to host as many HAZWOPER classes as they did, to get these new members trained and ready to work, I don’t know where we’d be.”

“There has been nothing but support,” said Pacific States Project Manager Kris Gretsinger “It has been easy to work with the community and the new hires. In fact, about 60% of the new hires for this project are from Lake County and nearly 20% more are from the surrounding counties.”

While some are here just to help with the cleanup, others are looking at it as something more. Recently initiated Local 324 member Mike Vaziri stated ”I consider this an opportunity of a lifetime. I never worked in construction before. I sold time shares, did customer service for an insurance company, but I’m really enthusiastic about becoming a laborer. The hourly wage, plus the pension and medical benefits are life changing.”

Another recent Local 324 initiate, Max Gonzalez said “At first, I thought – I’ll give it a try. I’m really happy and grateful that I did. I’m looking at this as a career. I’ve got my OSHA-10 certification, flagging and underground pipe; plus I got paid to go to class. But you’ve still got to work hard to get noticed.”

“I’m 28 years old and this is my first time earning a pension,” continued Gonzalez. “And I just got engaged. So the medical coverage will be great for my fiancé after we get married and if we have kids.”

Between the two locations more than 700 tradesmen were dispatched to work. “The help from the other Locals, to meet the manpower for this, has been fantastic,” said Local 73 Business Manager Carlos Bedolla. “It would have been real tough to meet the dispatch requests for this emergency work without being able to pull members from the surrounding Locals because the growth in regular construction activity was already draining our out-of-work list.  But through January we had initiated 151 new members and dispatched 254 laborers to the sites throughout Calaveras County.”

Matt Rodarte, Foreman for Sukut Construction, who has been part of emergency response teams for previous fires indicated, “The guys at Local 73 have been by far the best to work with. Anything that we requested; HAZWOPER trainings, dispatches, or whatever, they made sure it got done when we needed it.”

A nearly rebuilt property in Cobb Mountain.

A nearly rebuilt property in Cobb Mountain in mid January.

Incredible progress has been made since the start of the recovery. In less than 100 days, 1,000 lots were cleared at the Valley fire. Pacific States crews estimates the final few lots should be cleared by early March.

Teams working at the Butte sites, challenged by larger, less accessible lots, are about half way through the process. Some of these larger lots contained upwards of 40 vehicles. Nonetheless, Sukut Construction anticipates work will be done sometime in March.

While Pacific States Environmental Contractors and Sukut Construction were the lead contractors at their respective locations, many subcontractors were called on to help with the restoration work.

Subcontractors working with Sukut to reclaim Calaveras County included Ferma Corporation, Parc Environmental, Sierra Mountain Construction, Selby’s Soil Erosion Control, plus others.

The Valley response included Cal Inc, De Kay Demolition and Clearing, Dutch Contracting, Ghilotti Brothers, Restec Contractors, Selby’s Soil Erosion Control, and Yerba Buena Engineering & Construction among others.

At both locations, CalRecycle instituted a program to hire as many local contractors as possible for the recovery effort. Lake County based contractors that signed to terms and conditions for the Valley Fire included Fossa Backhoe, Epidendio Construction, Roberts Construction and Coleman Construction. With the Butte Fire, Calaveras County based Sutton Enterprises and Groundworks, Inc., signed on for the project.

“With work like this, we were just trying not to impact the community a second time,” stressed Erin McCarrick, Community Consultant with Madrone Strategies. “But to see the community pull together like it has and having retired Laborers and Operators come back to work to literally help pick up the pieces has been really inspiring.”