The deadly fire that leveled much of a San Bruno neighborhood two weeks ago left some intact souvenirs among the wreckage.
A rubber duck that had been passed around for years as a white elephant gift.
A retiree’s badge from the San Francisco Fire Department.
These little things are what Dean Peterson, director of
environmental health for the county, hope to find more of nestled in
the ash and debris as cleanup crews begin the heavy lifting today. The
job, which is estimated to take three weeks, is not a demolition job
and burned-out properties will not simply be leveled without
consideration of what might have survived the six-alarm blaze.
“It is recovery. We want to provide them the items we can and a
clean, safe piece of property on which they can build a house and
eventually a home,” Peterson said.
Residents whose homes are slated for cleanup were asked to give
crews lists of items they are searching for and areas where they might
be located. They were also asked if any pets were buried on the
property so that crews can cordon off the area and leave it untouched.
“We want to be respectful and we’ll do our best,” Peterson said.
On behalf of the city of San Bruno, San Mateo County contracted
with CalRecycles to clean and remove debris. A number of other agencies
— the California Environmental Protection Agency, California Air
Resources Board and the Department of Toxic Substances to name a few —
also jumped in immediately after the Sept. 9 fire and remain involved,
monitoring air quality and helping the county handle the disaster.
Colleagues from counties that know the impacts of fires well, such as
San Diego, also phoned with advice, Peterson said.
The crews began Monday soaking the properties to keep dust and
ash swirling in the strong San Bruno winds. Beginning Thursday, the
three crews will begin work on three properties and remove burnt out
vehicles to allow the heavy equipment better access.
Everything will be removed from a property except for
landscaping and patios that may have been untouched. Soil samples will
also be taken so that residents can be given a certification when the
work is done.
Peterson estimates three to four weeks for all the work to be
done but much depends on the speed of the crews and how affected they
are by the winds. The goal is to finish before the rainy season.
“At this point it’s not about speed, it’s about the quality of
the work that’s done,” Peterson said. “The work days may not be as long
but we will not compromise the environment or the work.”
DTS and the county have already removed 10 55-gallon drums of
waste which is actually less than expected because flammable material
like propane already burned off.
Metal and concrete will be taken to a recycler while the
remaining ash and dust goes to a landfill in Solano County. The county
could sample the materials to determine if it is hazardous first but
that takes precious time, Peterson said.
Homeowners are not required to let the county manage their
cleanup but of the 35 in need of work, 25 have signed up and at least
four are in the process, Peterson said.
Even those whose residences are still standing are watching the
cleanup process closely wondering what happens if some homeowners
choose not to participate.
Bill Bishop has lived with his wife Nelly in their house on Claremont Drive since 1981.
“It’s a bit disturbing,” he said noting some people could decide
to take the insurance money and not rebuild or clean up their site.
Such a move would leave people like the Bishops, who were lucky enough
to keep their home, looking at vacant, dirty lots with only a chimney.
Peterson said such situations have happened after other
disasters, like fires in Southern California, but he’s not sure what
will happen here in that situation. Frankly, he said, he doesn’t
anticipate that problem because of the tight-knit community and the
fact property owners will still need a clean bill of health if they
choose to sell the land.
Throughout the process, Peterson said the San Bruno city website
will post updates such as what homes have been addressed and which are
Although the cleanup costs will be picked up by individual
homeowner insurance, the county will also seek reimbursement “as
appropriate” from state and federal sources, said county spokesman
The cost of the fire to the county is still being compiled but
5,915 employee hours were spent between Sept. 9 and Sept. 18, Wilson
An accurate count of the hours since will not be accumulated until Monday, Sept. 27, he said.