Toxic Cleanup From California's Wildfires Expected to Take Until 2018

Image via AP.
Image via AP.

California’s wildfires are still resulting in devastation across the state, with at least 42 dead and another 50 missing, in addition to 6,900 structures that have been burned to the ground.


But cooler temperatures and higher levels of humidity have allowed firefighters to contain around 85 percent of the once-uncontrollable blazes, and now, federal and local authorities are starting to turn their attention to the long, arduous process of recovering from the immense damage the fires have wrought.

FEMA announced on Thursday that the fires in and around Sonoma County currently rank fourth on their list of disasters, measured by damage and number of people killed in a single incident. Santa Rosa city council member Chris Rogers wrote on Facebook that cleanup will begin “within the next few weeks, with a goal of being done by early 2018.” The Army Corps of Engineers will handle the first wave of toxic testing before handing the recovery effort over to CalRecycle, the umbrella organization that manages the state’s recycling and waste management programs.

Evacuees are also eager to return to their demolished homes in hopes of salvaging at least some items from the rubble. As Yvette Escutia told NBC Bay Area:

“It’s just memories that we would like to get. My wedding ring is still there, my charm bracelet that my husband gave me when my son was born. Little things like that. We know we’re not going to be able to repair anything that was burned or anything but I wish that, I hope that my ring is still there,” Escutia said.

Meanwhile, the Sonoma County sheriff’s office issued a statement yesterday slamming ICE for making an already terrible situation worse. In a post on Facebook, Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano wrote:

ICE attacked the Sheriff’s Office in the midst of the largest natural disaster this county has ever experienced. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated, many people have lost their homes and 23 people have died from this firestorm. ICE’s misleading statement stirs fear in some of our community members who are already exhausted and scared.


According to the post, a man named Jesus Gonzalez was arrested on suspicion of starting a fire in a park to keep himself warm, though there’s no evidence to suggest that his alleged actions triggered the disaster. But ICE accused the sheriff’s office of leaving “their community vulnerable to dangerous individuals and preventable crimes,” writing that Gonzalez had been released despite the agency requesting he be held.

Actually, Giordano said, ICE bungled the detainer by failing to have it signed by a judge, rendering it useless, in addition to the fact that Gonzalez is still being held on $200,000 bail. Also, Giordano said, there is no basis for the accusation that Gonzalez is responsible for the wildfire, aside from an inflammatory story in Breitbart. From the Los Angeles Times:

“There is a story out there that he’s the arsonist in these fires. That’s not the case. There’s no indication he’s related to these fires at all,” Giordano said of Gonzalez. “I wanted to kill that speculation right now, so we didn’t have things running too far out of control.”



I grew up in Santa Rosa, have family there, and live close enough that I’ve been up several times in the past couple of weeks. The devastation to Santa Rosa is heartbreaking, but what is heartening is that the community is really pulling together, and most of the city is intact, with stores open and services available to evacuees and those who have lost their homes. It’s going to be a long, sad, difficult process, though, as the city climbs out of this disaster.

From that first, horrific night, when the fire roared up over the ridge and slammed into neighborhoods with ferocious power and speed, I have been 100% Team Sheriff’s Office. Those officers went into the fire zone on Mark West Springs Road and risked their lives to save people. One officer got down the mountain by the skin of his teeth, and another was trapped along with 35 residents, who he gathered in the relative safety of the Mark West Springs Lodge parking lot, sheltering with them throughout the night while the fires raged around them. As one resident said, had he not been there, people would have scattered in every direction and most certainly would have died. The fire came within 300 yards of the Lodge and then turned, sparing the lives of everyone in that parking lot.

I’d seen the ugliness of the rumor about an undocumented immigrant setting the fires, born (not at all surprisingly) on Breitbart & InfoWars, spring up in a Santa Rosa Fire Facebook group, and I was so happy to see Sheriff Giordano’s unequivocal repudiation of those rumors yesterday. He and the entire Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department are doing an admirable job of shepherding the community through a truly horrible time.