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Cleanup begins: San Bruno fire site now enters recovery phase

 | Published on 9/23/2010


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.

Jewelry.

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 upcoming.

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 Marshall Wilson.

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 said.

An accurate count of the hours since will not be accumulated until Monday, Sept. 27, he said.