By Carol VernonFebruary 14, 2018
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and in partnership with the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services has removed more than one million tons of fire-related debris left behind by the October 2017 Northern California wildfires that blazed through Sonoma County.
One million tons of anything is not something the mind easily conceives. It helps to have something tangible to compare it to for a true understanding. One million tons is equal to approximately one and one quarter the weight of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, which comes in at 877,000 tons. Even closer to home for Sonoma County, one million tons is equal to four million barrels of wine or the amount of grapes yielded from 200,000 acres of vines.
Only three and a half months after the devastating fire blazed through not only Sonoma, but also Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties, each county is seeing the results of a steady concentrated effort from contractors, the Corps, CalOES and FEMA to remove fire-related debris.
Sonoma County has 3,953 approved parcels enrolled in the Consolidated Debris Removal Program with more than 2,700 parcels cleared to date.
"A million tons of debris is a monumental achievement that could not have been reached without a whole of community effort," Col. Eric McFadden, commander Sonoma Recovery Field Office said. "It demonstrates a commitment to this community on behalf of the Corps and its partners to return it to its new normal."
For one member of the RFO, the debris removal mission is more than a commitment to a community - it is a commitment to family and friends.
"I was raised in the same house my great-grandmother, grandmother and mother lived in, in Sonoma County," Stacey Pereyda Hill, a contracting specialist at the Sonoma RFO, said. "So, this county is home to me and I needed to be on this mission."
Hill's great-grandmother survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which hit hardest in Santa Rosa, a city in Sonoma County. Her cousin is a major contractor who built many of the houses in the Santa Rosa community of Fountaingrove.
The night of the fires, she and other family members who were in Santa Rosa after a death in the family, were awakened around 3:30 a.m. by neighbors urging them to get out. Looking around the once quiet neighborhood, she saw heavy smoke and an orange glow from flames in the hills surrounding them. They evacuated, leaving behind nearly all of their belongings.
Three weeks later, they drove along Highway 12 from Napa to Sonoma and saw the ash and the charred remnants of their neighbor's lives.
"In the beginning, I couldn't stop crying," Hill said. "It was like a war zone. The structures I've seen my whole life were gone - the red barn at the top of Fountaingrove - gone."
As they approached the family home, they realized they were among the lucky ones. The beloved house that held so many of her childhood memories was still there. However, knowing so many of her friends and neighbors had lost everything made it a bittersweet blessing.
"It's like I've come full circle," she said. "I went from feeling helpless to feeling hopeful. Working for the Corps on this mission means I'm a part of the crew making a difference. It's the tangible difference removing one-million tons of fire-related debris can make."
The Corps of Engineers expects to have fire-related debris removed from all four counties by the end of March.