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County seeks help in toxic debris cleanup for homes destroyed by fires


By Victoria Metcalf

[email protected]


In an urgency item added to the Tuesday, Aug. 3 meeting, members of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors approved a request for toxic and debris removal assistance for properties affected by the Beckwourth Complex and Dixie fires.

Submitted by Plumas County Environmental Health, the letter is addressed to the director of the California Department of Emergency Services. It includes Phase 1 and Phase 2 for removal assistance.

The state’s assistance is crucial when it comes to toxic waste and debris clean-up of all homes and private properties burned during Plumas County’s most recent fires, according to Supervisor Jeff Engel. Plumas County doesn’t have the finances or capability of handling the magnitude of the costs and work involved in handling toxic waste and debris clearing requirements, he added.

Supervisors also approved a waiver for Plumas County’s cost-share on the area’s two most recent fires.

Citing several years’ worth of catastrophic events in some or all of Plumas County, supervisors included the Minerva Fire in 2019, the North Complex fires (Claremont and Bear fires) in 2020, COVID-19, the Beckwourth Complex fires (Sugar and Dotta fires) and now the Dixie Fire in 2021. The disasters have created an economic hardship on Plumas, “depleting the resources needed to respond to the Beckwourth Complex and Dixie fire,” according to the letter to the Department of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarduccci.

“The impacts of these fires on Plumas County cannot be overstated,” supervisors said in the letter. “Plumas County staff have been in disaster mode for almost a month, with the Beckwourth Complex Fire starting on July 3, and the Dixie Fire starting on July 13.

As of July 30, the date the letter was written, 16 homes and 45 total structures were lost or heavily damaged on the Beckwourth Complex Fire. Those fires caused by lightning covered nearly 105,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen counties. By July 30, the fire was 98 percent contained.

By Wednesday, Aug. 4, the day following approval of the urgency letter, the Dixie Fire had hit three Northern California counties including Plumas, Butte and Tehama and covered more than 274,000 acres. By ranking, the Dixie Fire moved from the 11th largest to 8th largest wildfire in the state’s history.

By July 30, 40 homes and many more structures and outbuildings were destroyed, it’s pointed out in the letter to the department of emergency services. “While the number of homes destroyed in these fires may not compare with the numbers lost in the North Complex in Plumas and Butte counties last year, the number of homes destroyed is very significant for a county with a population less than 20,000 residents,” according to the letter.

“Throughout these fires, over 10,000 structures have been at risk and well over half of our county population has been affected by evacuation orders or advisories,” according to the letter approved by supervisors. By Aug. 4, containment of the Dixie Fire was at 38 percent, but high winds were behind the fire’s rapid increase and were expected throughout that day.

The Dixie Fire was ignited July 13 in the Feather River Canyon in approximately the same area as the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people and decimated the city of Paradise and others. PG&E, one of the state’s major power companies, was deemed responsible for the Camp Fire and allegedly started the Dixie Fire.

In July, supervisors declared a state of emergency three separate times concerning fires. The Aug. 3 action by roll call vote was just the most recent action by the board concerning wildfires.

In the letter, supervisors point out that rural Plumas County lacks the resources for the assessment of total damage to homes and structures lost during the Dixie Fire. It also doesn’t have the resources to oversee the safe, proper and timely assessment of handling and removal of toxic debris and burned ash left by the fires. “There are only a few local contractors qualified for this type of cleanup, and the number of destroyed homes will quickly overwhelm these local resources,” it’s stated in the letter.

“Based upon our knowledge of the locations of these burned homes, we assume many of the destroyed homes were uninsured or underinsured, and many affected homeowners will be unable to pay for the necessary cleanup,” according to supervisors.

In addition, homes destroyed in the Beckwourth Complex are located in the upper Feather River Watershed a tributary to the Middle Fork of the Feather River. And lost land within the Dixie Fire are in the tributary to the North Fork of the Feather River.

“Toxic debris assessment and removal in all of these areas is critical to protect water quality of the Feather River, Lake Oroville and the California Water Project. Assessment and cleanup of these properties cannot be delayed without risking the public’s health safety and spreading environmental contamination,” according to the document.

“In summary, when processing this request please consider the unique circumstances of Plumas County.”

Copies of the letter were also sent to State Sen. Brian Dahle, State Sen. Megan Dahle, Congressman Doug LaMalfa and the Maidu Indian Tribe.

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