After burning for 38 days and covering 86,500 acres in San Mateo and Santa Cruz county, the effects of the CZU Lightning Complex fire continue to linger, due to the potential for toxic exposure from hazardous substances in its aftermath. 

The state of California and local environmental agencies quickly assessed the extent of the damage and determined that recovery exceeded state capabilities and requested federal assistance. This prompted the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be sent in on Sept. 29 to help residents affected by the recent wildfires,  assessing damage on a case-by-case basis and leading efforts to remove and dispose of hazardous materials.

Yet, in having to cover almost 1,000 parcels of land in Santa Cruz county, the complicated process has the potential to leave some people unaccounted for. 

Sophia McGee is a Boulder Creek resident, and while her house was not severely damaged, the area around her property was burned to ashes, including a nearby shed that served as her husband’s workshop. Having received no help in cleaning her property, she resorts to laying a tarp over the debris to contain its spread into the air. But her temporary actions haven’t fixed the issue at hand. 

“I have a three-year-old, and we can’t go outside cause that toxic ash is floating everywhere. And we put the tarp on there because we hope that will help someone.” McGee said. “But every morning I wake up and I go on my deck, there’s a layer of ash. I know there’s ash everywhere, because the outside of my house is completely burned, but that toxic ash is also floating all over the air, so we can’t even go outside and breathe safely.”

The EPA’s efforts in wildfire recovery will be completed in two phases. The first is led by EPA Incident Commander Steve Calanog, whose team has since completed roughly forty percent of phase one of the recovery process. According to EPA Public Information Officer Rusty Harris-Bishop, the damage that McGee describes would not be covered in the ongoing phase one cleanup, 

Photo illustration of hazardous waste being cleaned up by workers in hazmat-like suits
Illustration by Joss Borys. “Rubble” by Wikimedia Commons user Bidgee. Other photos are fair use.

“We wouldn’t be removing the remaining ash and debris; that will be addressed in phase two, either through the government program or through a private contractor.” Bishop-Harris said in an email. 

According to Calanog, phase one, which comes with no additional cost to the property owner, revolves around the removal of household hazardous waste, including traditional cleaners, paint, batteries, and herbicides, and tools. Hazmat trained personnel are brought in along with environmental monitoring equipment to quickly assess and determine what materials are there, and quickly remove them in order for the next phase of work to begin. 

Even with teams of ten to twelve people assigned to assess each parcel, it’s still a tedious task.  

“There are situations that there’s so much household hazardous waste, or the conditions are so challenging, that sometimes it takes our team a full day to complete that removal on a specific property,” said Calanog. 

In checking the status of her property, McGee found that her parcel was not listed to be assessed for phase one cleanup. For the past couple of weeks, she has not been able to get a clear response on the protocol to change that. 

“There was no information. They have all these flowcharts and things that they share, which were useless because if I follow the flow chart, [my house and damage] qualifies, but how do I do that?” McGee said. “There was no way to do that and it was really frustrating.”

In responding to McGee’s frustrations, Bishop-Harris said that since the phase one team’s deployment, they have added many parcels that were not included in the initial date provided to them from the county.

Once phase one is complete, phase two can begin with approval by the Santa Cruz County Environmental Health Division. Here, fire-related ash and debris will be removed and disposed of. Phase one and two excavation can’t be done in one stage as ash debris collected in phase two isn’t disposed of in as restricted areas as hazardous materials collected in phase one. 

“Most of the work that we do is by hand. You’ll see our folks with shovels and buckets and  rubber gloves, and they’re going through the debris, picking it out by hand. Phase two is done with heavy equipment like an excavator,” Bishop-Harris said. 

Property owners will not be able to engage in phase two clean up directly and will have to decide on two options: participate in a free California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services program or hire a private contractor to remove fire debris. After the removal of all hazardous waste and final site testing, a removal clearance will be issued by the Santa Cruz Environmental Health division, after which property owners can begin the rebuilding process and move to temporary housing.  

Even with the grievances that she’s had, McGee remains sympathetic to the task at hand while also hoping for more accountability in the process. 

“I’m not bashing Santa Cruz County because at the end of the day I feel bad because this is the first time this place has burned down in 100 years,” McGee said.  “I think they need help and I don’t know if they are asking for the right help or if they are given the right help by the federal government. I hope that accountability is spread between federal and state governments as well.”