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Posted 3/5/2018

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By J. Paul Bruton

The Corps is edging closer to completing cleanup of debris on properties affected by the October 2017 wildfires that swept through Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. The cleanup efforts are nearly nonstop; however, like leaving the toughest portions of a jigsaw puzzle for last, so goes the cleanup of what the Corps calls ‘difficult to access’ properties.

While many parcels are located in easy-to-reach, open areas with paved roads on which to send in trucks and equipment, many have been made inaccessible as a direct result of the fires.

Factors such as unsafe or very narrow roads, burned-out bridges, downed trees or unusually steep terrain have left some properties nearly impossible to reach. But the Corps does not dismiss any property as inaccessible – there are only difficult to access properties waiting for solutions.

“The teams we have working these difficult to access parcels in Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Napa counties understand what’s at stake here. They continue to innovate as they go, while ensuring safe and deliberate operations,” said Col. Eric McFadden, commander of the Sonoma Recovery Field Office.

Mark Swenson, area engineer for the Corps’ debris removal mission in Sonoma County, recently walked along a newly created dirt road, analyzing the condition of the half-mile route. Just one day earlier, the same route was an unusable stretch of narrow, rutted road deemed too unsafe to run dump trucks on. Now, a nearly complete, flatly-graded and widened road has replaced it.

“This is really impressive,” Swenson said of the striking changes. “Yesterday, this road was unusable. Now they can safely run equipment through here, no problem.”

With the new road in place, Corps contractors can now begin debris cleanup of 21 individual properties.

Burned bridges have also kept many parcels inaccessible. Many rural properties lie on the opposite side of creeks or small rivers that had private bridges that owner’s used to access the parcel. While the metal support beams might remain, the majority of small bridges in the area had wood planking and often even wood railings that were incinerated during the fires.

With heavy equipment such as excavators and dump trucks needed to out-load the debris, thick steel plates have to be brought in and laid end-to-end upon the remaining beams. The plates, approximately 15-feet long, 8-feet wide and one-and-a-half inches thick, are used to safely bridge theses gaps. Once the property is cleared, the heavy plates are moved, often just a few hundred feet up the road, and the process of creating a temporary bridge is repeated.

Several difficult to access properties remain, particularly in the winding back roads of Sonoma County. But the Corps continues to find ways to reach properties, bridge gaps, and let each property owner know that if we haven’t gotten there yet, you can be certain we are on the way.

debris removal emergency response Lake County Mendocino County Napa County Northern California wildfires Sonoma County