Disposing of a Disaster

COORDINATING DEBRIS REMOVAL after a natural disaster, particularly a fire, is an important role for the waste industry, even if these events do not occur every day. Because being prepared means solid waste managers can better serve the community, which can help ease homeowners' pain, when disasters strike.

In October 2003, an arsonist set fire to the north edge of San Bernardino, Calif., which immediately spread to 400 homes. Fanned by erratic winds, the fire was one of several that had engulfed southern California in one of its worst fire seasons.

Three factors contributed to fire leap-frogging through neighborhoods: wind, a house's structure and fire-fighting efforts. Some houses remained intact, while their immediate neighbors' houses were burned or badly damaged. Thus, it was necessary to remove fire debris quickly, so adjacent property would not be damaged as well.

“We were concerned about some of the structures that were left — chimneys that could fall on adjacent properties, streets or sidewalks,” says Glenn Baude, director of code compliance for San Bernardino.

Because of the fire's intense heat, wood studs that provided structural support were reduced to ash, leaving wire and stucco walls precariously balanced. The heat caused concrete and chimneys to expand, fracturing concrete and weakening the mortar. Code compliance officers and building inspectors spent days after the fire conducting inspections and categorizing sites with red, yellow and green placards indicating sites' safety levels.

Most materials left after wildfires include inerts such as stucco, concrete and charred metals — all combustibles are consumed by the heat, leaving large quantities of fine ash. Depending on a structure's age, asbestos and hazardous materials also may be present. In San Bernardino's case, most hazardous materials had been volatilized during the fire, but concerns about natural gas cylinders used for barbecues required contractors' assessments. Thus, the city had to address these concerns as the cleanup progressed.

“Many of the houses had asbestos, as part of the insulation or piping, that became mixed in with the ash,” Baude says. “We have to analyze [the ash], and if there is asbestos, we've got to treat everything that's there. It greatly [increases the] price to remove debris.”

Fire debris had to be transported to a lined landfill. Fortunately, San Bernardino County operates two such sites within 15 miles of the disaster area — San Timoteo and Mid-Valley landfills.

The California Integrated Waste Management Board, Sacramento, requires that a landfill accepting debris containing a certain amount of asbestos to obtain an emergency waiver, unless the landfill is already authorized for such material.

Almost immediately, the city's Solid Waste Division placed roll-off dumpsters throughout affected neighborhoods. “We [helped] residents get dumpsters near their homes so they could throw away some of the things,” Arlington Rodgers, solid waste manager says. “We provided them with free services.” The service strained the city's roll-off operation, but assistance from several local private companies provided additional support. The availability of dumpsters provided a psychological boost to residents' recovery process.

Additionally, placing roll-offs along the public right-of-way, instead of on private property, is a recoverable expense under the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) guidelines. Tracking information for FEMA reimbursement costs is critical in disaster cleanup, but it sometimes is overlooked as a disaster unfolds. San Bernardino purchased additional roll-off bins to manage the debris, which it hopes will be reimbursable through FEMA — depending on current negotiations regarding various costs admissibility.

“[Haulers] should keep detailed records of bin numbers, material going in the bins, driver times and equipment costs related to each particular bin,” Rodgers suggests.

Another challenge to recovery is keeping in contact with property owners who have been displaced from their homes. Without phones or mail services, notifying residents of their cleanup responsibilities should occur as soon as possible. If a homeowner fails to clear debris in a timely manner, the city may be forced to clear the area. In this case, the city can place a lien on the land to be deducted once the property is sold.

Obviously, this isn't the optimum method for dealing with residents. “You need to be very considerate of what they are going through. They have just lost their house and all of their belongings.” Baude says. “It certainly doesn't become an enforcement effort … it becomes more of a helping effort … We didn't want to add to their grief, but it certainly would have helped if we would have started our notification process the second, third or fourth week instead of the second or third month.”

Currently, the majority of San Bernardino's properties either have been cleared or contractors have been secured to complete the task. “I think providing the free dumpsters eased a lot of the emotional stress,” Rodgers says. “Although we couldn't replace the homes, I think seeing those dumpsters out there let [people] know the city cared.”