California fire cleanup reaches new step: clearing ruins

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Rumbling bulldozers and front-loaders have started scraping up the ash, charred wood and crumbled bricks and concrete left from thousands of homes and buildings destroyed by blazes in California wine country, launching a new phase in the largest wildfire cleanup in state history.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors began the work this week in flattened, blackened blocks of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood. It experienced some of the most-sweeping destruction last month when fierce winds drove flames that killed at least 43 people and destroyed 8,900 houses and other buildings across Northern California.

On Santa Rosa streets where hundreds of houses once stood, “you look across the landscape and see nothing but burned everything,” Army Corps spokesman Rick Brown said as crews and heavy equipment around him began clearing debris from lots.

U.S., state and local agencies are working on the cleanup, which includes testing soil, air and water samples from burned areas for contamination. Authorities say they expect to have the lots cleared for property owners by early 2018, although rebuilding is expected to take years more.

California puts the insured losses at $3.3 billion so far, among the highest of any U.S. wildfires in recent decades.

In hard-hit Sonoma and Napa counties, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finished the first phase of cleanup at most properties: removing potential hazardous substances before the heavy equipment moves in.

Generally, the fires overran housing developments and rural areas rather than industrial sites, so the hazardous waste is mainly what’s in garages and barns — propane tanks from barbecue grills, cans of motor oil, and pesticides, officials say.

That contrasts with Hurricane Harvey, which flooded more than a dozen Superfund sites…

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