Feds want toxic debris removed before Camp Fire victims return to burn zone

Officials in Butte County and Paradise say they'll postpone the return of residents to their properties until the hazardous materials are gone.
Image: Camp Fire
After a brief delay to let a downpour pass, volunteers resume their search for human remains at a mobile home park in Paradise, California on Nov. 23, 2018.Kathleen Ronayne / AP

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By James Rainey

Struggling to house more than 20,000 people displaced when their homes burned during November’s Camp Fire, officials in Butte County and the town of Paradise approved laws allowing residents to live temporarily in mobile homes on their burned properties.

But those ordinances fly in the face of a county health official's finding that fire debris contains hazardous material. That creates a “a health and safety concern” and endangers the federal government’s promise to pay for cleanup work on private property, an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency has warned.

Faced with the FEMA warning, officials in Butte County and Paradise are reversing course, saying they will postpone the return of residents to their properties until after bulldozers have removed a toxic hash of debris, ash and hazardous materials.

A Cal Fire firefighter monitors a burning home as the Camp Fire moves through the area on Nov. 9, 2018, in Magalia, California.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

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The Butte County Board of Supervisors moved this week to reverse an emergency ordinance allowing repopulation of burned properties before debris removal. The Paradise town council is scheduled to take up a similar measure on Monday to revoke its own temporary repopulation law.

An estimated 130 residents in the burn zone have received permits to re-occupy their properties. But it’s unknown how many had moved back and will now have to leave because of the reversal by the city and county.

“We tried to do the right thing for the right reasons—to alleviate some of the housing emergency going on in Chico and the surrounding areas, so we allowed temporary placement of RVs on properties before debris removal,” said Paradise town manager Lauren Gill. “But it wasn’t the right thing, so we are going to dial back on that.”

The Camp Fire roared down a ridgeline and into Paradise and surrounding towns on the morning of Nov. 8. It destroyed 14,000 residences and killed 86 people, making it the deadliest fire in California history.

A lack of housing in surrounding communities has left several hundred people still homeless. Many more are crammed into hotel rooms, guest houses or with relatives and friends in neighboring communities. Public officials have been looking for ways to alleviate the housing crunch, which led one website to designate Chico, California, as the hottest housing market in America.

A Butte County sherriff deputy searches the property of a destroyed home for a reported Camp Fire victim on Nov. 10, 2018, in Paradise, California.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

David Samaniego, a federal coordinating officer with FEMA, wrote the governor’s Office of Emergency Services to suggest public officials in the burn zone needed to abide by a warning issued shortly after the fire by Andy Miller, Butte County’s health officer. Butte County acknowledged “the potential for widespread toxic exposures and threats to public health and the environment.”

Samaniego said in his Jan. 24 letter that FEMA will not place any of its temporary housing on land that has not had fire debris cleared.

The federal agency typically does not pay for debris cleanup on private property but makes exceptions if the material is a threat to public health. Allowing people to move back onto the burn zone properties prematurely “may impact the justification for [private property debris removal] related activities and federal reimbursement” of the work, Samaniego wrote.

Officials have estimated that removal of the tainted debris could cost $1.7 billion. A FEMA official suggested Thursday that the fact that local officials were reversing the temporary occupation ordinances should remove any roadblock to FEMA paying for the work.

"If they remove that ordinance that would allow things to move forward," said Michael R. Hart, a FEMA spokesman.