USACE hits milestone in NorCal Wildfire mission

Published Jan. 8, 2018

ROHNERT PARK, California – When the rest of the world was popping champagne to ring in the New Year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reached another milestone in its continuing Federal Emergency Management Agency mission in Northern California to assist the region recover from the devastating effects of the October 2017 wildfires.

Col. Eric M. McFadden, the Northern California Recovery Field Office Commander, said the team is working hard to help the region.

“We have made great strides over the past 60 days in cleaning up fire-caused debris across four counties,” McFadden said. “In the past few days, we reached a milestone of clearing more than 2,000 private properties out of more than 5,500 parcels that need to be cleared.”

As of Jan. 5, the Corps has cleared 2,228 properties.

The Consolidated Debris Removal Program, which grew out of the ashes of the October 2017 wildfires, is a two-phase process. Phase 1 is the removal of household hazardous waste by the Environmental Protection Agency in Sonoma and Napa counties and by the California Department of Toxic Substance Control in Lake and Mendocino counties. Phase 2 is the removal of other fire-related debris from structures destroyed by the fire. The Corps of Engineers is managing this phase under the direction of FEMA.

According to McFadden, each time the Corps removes the debris from a lot or parcel of land, it means another homeowner who lost everything in these wildfires, can not only began to rebuild their homes – they can start to rebuild their lives. 

“An elderly couple came to the Recovery Field Office in Santa Rosa last week to thank personally the Corps team for the cleanup work we did on their property, which is allowing them to focus on the future and put the trauma of the fire behind them,” McFadden said.

The Corps awarded two more debris removal contracts last week totaling $635 million. These contracts will allow the Corps to complete the majority of the remaining properties by the end of February.

“The completion date is a commitment the Corps made to the affected counties and communities and our stakeholder partners, and one which we are determined to honor,” McFadden said. “In order to do so, we will need many more volunteers over the next 60 days.”

Currently, more than 150 Corps volunteers are working the Northern California wildfire recovery mission.

“We have had tremendous success with talented employees from all disciplines filling a variety of positions so do not let your current position duties keep you from volunteering for a position that you believe you can fill,” McFadden said.

Deborah Lewis, a biologist from the Sacramento District, is serving as the RFO Office Engineer. She started with the mission on October 21, 2017 after leaving recovery efforts in Houston, where she served for 45 days.

“When I first came here, I was the National Environmental Policy Act Compliance Officer, which fit more in what I do,” Lewis said. “Now, I am the Office Engineer.”

Being the Office Engineer requires Lewis to use skills she acquired “in another life.”

Now, she tracks personnel, fills positions, composes the daily situation reports and tracks the mission’s burn rate, which calculates the expenses.

“I volunteered for this mission and the one in Texas because I wanted to do something good, but I will take away the relationships I’ve formed,” Lewis said. “These people are my family. They mean everything to me. It’s the same with the people in Texas – they mean everything to me.”