When a fire burns hot enough to melt engine blocks and granite countertops, it is at least 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything it touches at that point is compromised. So, when it’s time to clean up a destroyed house or structure, everything must be removed since the debris can contain lead, asbestos and other toxic particles. That can be a challenging reality for wildfire survivors when they must decide what to do about their property.
Bill Proctor spent 30 days explaining those details and more to people in Maui during a recent deployment through the December holidays supporting wildfire recovery efforts by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Bill, who is normally the Hydrologic Engineering and Power Branch chief at Northwestern Division, USACE in Portland, Oregon, left for Hawaii in early December to help collect Rights of Entry (ROE) forms so that other staff could access private property for debris removal.
“To clean off the damaged structure, we have to have that permission,” said Bill. “It is very hard for people to separate the practical and pragmatic steps to take going forward, and deal with the events that just happened,” he said. “We were there to explain the debris removal process, what will happen, and answer any questions that the individual might have.”
The conversations Bill had with property owners varied wildly. Some comprehended the process while others wanted to talk about conspiracy theories related to the cause of the fire.
“For some this process is very quick and for others it is much more protracted,” he said. “Either way, it is a grieving process and we try and be as supportive as we can. Sometimes we would point people to other resources to help with their particular issues.”
Bill estimates he advised at least five people a day about their options relating to debris removal.
After 20 days in a row of work, Bill was able to take Christmas off and held a video call with his wife Marge (a financial management analyst with Northwestern Division) and two sons as they had a quiet holiday celebration.
“This was the first time that Bill missed the holidays with us,” said Marge. “We knew we could celebrate Christmas after he returned. And, with all the technology we have today, we still could spend some time together that day,” she said.
Bill and Marge understood the small sacrifice, but both felt deploying would be worthwhile. Their two sons seemed to bear the brunt of the monthlong excursion.
“Our two college-aged boys are still at home, so they were here … they did mention that they weren’t eating as well with Bill gone,” explained Marge. “He does a lot of the cooking! So, I was kind of put on the spot to step up a little to provide better dinners for them.”
Bill returned to Oregon just after the New Year and he expects the recovery to be lengthy as efforts slowly continue.