PARADISE, Calif. — As two men in white hazmat suits walked through the remains of what was once a home, Astoria resident Steve Dopp kept a close eye on what they found sifting through the piles of ash and debris.
Dopp’s team of Superfund Technical Assessment and Response personnel is just one of many working for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help clean up a town incinerated by the most destructive and lethal wildfire in California history.
The Camp Fire roared through this community of 26,000 in Butte County on Nov. 8. It obliterated most of the town. It reduced homes to rubble and ash and hollowed out cars and trucks, leaving behind only burned-out shells. The fire was so hot, parts of vehicles melted away, leaving behind streams of molten metal dribbling down driveways.
This is not the first time the EPA and contractors have worked at the scene of devastating wildfires in California and other states.
The North Bay fires of 2017 were part of a series of 250 blazes across Northern California beginning in early October. In all, those fires burned more than 240,000 acres, killed 44 people, destroyed 8,900 buildings and cost an estimated $14.5 billion. The Camp Fire alone burned more than 150,000 acres, destroyed 18,000 buildings and killed 88 people, with at least three people still unaccounted for, according to the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.
EPA Incident Commander Steve Calanog could not provide specific estimates, but believes the size and scope of the damage caused by the Camp Fire was worse than previous fires.
“Many of us here were involved with the North Bay fires that ran through Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties last year,” Calanog said. “What we are looking at here in the town of Paradise is likely to be twice as big, if not more than what we dealt with last year. It will take longer and cost more.”
The Camp Fire has since been put out and the town of Paradise completely evacuated. The only people left in the area are law enforcement, arborists removing dangerous trees, utility and aid workers, debris removal firms and construction crews.
Besides twisted metal, chimneys, melted trash cans and mailboxes scattered along the ground, the fire also left behind hazardous materials that now have to be cleaned up before people can return to the area or even think about rebuilding.
Enter Dopp and other contractors working with the EPA. Dozens of workers are now on the ground in Paradise looking through the wreckage to determine where dangerous materials exist and how to dispose of them.
Dopp, who lives in Astoria with his family and is the co-owner of Workers Tavern in Uniontown with his wife, Diana Kirk, was prohibited from talking publicly about his role due to contractual obligations between the EPA and the company he works for, Weston Solutions.
And while Dopp has worked in disaster zones before, in Paradise his job is especially tricky.
Before hazardous waste can be removed, it has to be found. The only way to do that is for teams to go house to house and sift through the wreckage. What they find has to be recorded and fed into a computer for analysis. So while hazmat specialists carefully pick their way through what is left on the ground, Dopp plugs information about what they are finding into a tablet computer.
Hazardous debris is everywhere, covered in a layer of delicate, white ash like freshly fallen snow. Propane canisters, cans of paint, firearms, ammunition, asbestos, gas tanks and other dangerous materials litter the blackened landscape.
Calanog said it will take months to begin cleaning up Paradise. The effort will cost millions of dollars and include several distinct types of work, beginning with teams like the one Dopp is working alongside.
“This is called phase one of the debris removal process,” Calanog said. “This is the first work in the aftermath of the fire. Our teams are doing an assessment of the properties and removing items like paint, solvents, cleaners, batteries and compressed gas cylinders. This first phase is done in advance of phase two, which is the larger debris removal.”
The information Dopp and other technicians are recording will be used to let county authorities know where the teams are, what properties have been cleared and what has been found, Calanog said.
“What we are able to do is to start collecting data and report out at almost real time about the progress,” he said. “With this technology, we can report to the county and state down to each property what we have removed. We also have a lot of information from the county. So, we know the age of the home and that can be indicative at times of how much asbestos they are likely to encounter.”
EPA on-scene coordinator Bob Whittier said the initial assessment of the properties will provide important information to debris removal teams who will arrive in a few weeks.
“There is also a health and safety aspect to the pre-screening,” Whittier said. “They are in there making sure there aren’t any inherent hazards before the suited guys can go in and remove materials.”
So while the fire may be out, there are still weeks of work left for people like Dopp, sifting through the ruins of thousands of structures.
As teams clear properties and evacuation orders are lifted, residents that survived the fire will begin to assess what remains. On most streets in Paradise, there is not much left.