Federal contractors dispose of toxic materials in CZU fire debris removal

Federal contractors are half way through the first phase of removing debris from areas in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties scorched by the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

A similar procedure was done after the North Bay fires in 2017. Toxic household materials produced when homes and vehicles were turned to ash during the Summers wildfires are being collected and taken to federally-approved disposal sites.

“We’re looking for paint, including aerosol cans, latex oil-based paint. We’re looking for compressed gas cylinders,” said Chris Myers of the Environmental Protection Agency, who serves as the branch director for the CZU fire clean-up. “Anything that we wouldn’t want to spread further.”

Tuesday, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the start of the second phase of the clean-up.

“It’s very important that a complete debris removal is taken place on these different structures,” said Dr. Marilyn Underwood, the Santa Cruz County director of environmental health.

She said there are 15 zones spread across the burn area. Residents can choose a private option for debris removal, and then be reimbursed. Or have the federal government handle the clean-up. There’s also an exemption if a smaller structure was destroyed. But the deadline to choose ends in December.

“It’s gonna be busy getting this all done. But it’s really good work and hopefully we’ll get it done fast,” said Lewis Pozzebom, the Santa Cruz County debris manager.

Experts say time is of the essence, since wet weather during rainy season, coupled with the loss of vegetation, could exacerbate problems.

“When that burning occurs it tends to leave a hydrophobic residue on the soil that then doesn’t allow any of that water to absorb into the soil. And then it means all of that soil on the top just slides right off,” said Dr. Laura Sullivan-Green, chairwoman of the San Jose State University Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering.

The board of supervisors approved phase two of the cleanup as an urgency ordinance, and as such It goes into effect immediately. The federal government will reimburse the county for clean-up costs.