Cleanup crews have begun to remove hazardous waste from the roughly 18,000 buildings destroyed in the Camp Fire, which ignited in Butte County more than a month ago.
It's the first step in the massive cleanup, which is expected to take more than a year to complete. Debris removal is being overseen by CalRecycle, a department within the California Environmental Protection Agency, which is expected to start hauling away more than 8 million tons of ash, contaminated soil, concrete and metal in January.
But first, hazmat teams from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have to clear hazardous items including propane tanks and batteries. One such team — suited up in white Tyvek suits, hardhats and respirators — went to work on a mobile home park outside of Paradise on Saturday.
The first step in the process is for the workers to walk through the debris and identify hazardous materials, like medical devices, or anything with asbestos or radiation. Because they are working with piles of rubble, the workers use specialized equipment to detect the dangerous materials, like a multi-gas meter that checks for fumes from household products or a radiation meter.
"There are traditional household items that may have a small rad[iation] force in them, and because there's a lot of retired folks up here, there may be medical equipment that had rad forces in them, so that is one reason why we're using that to scan the properties," said Steve Calanog, the EPA's incident commander for the waste removal project.
The meter clicks consistently as Calanog holds it, but there's no radiation danger at this burned down mobile home.
"We're safe," Calanog said. "It would start clicking very quickly if there were something to be concerned [about]."
But as the workers continue searching the mobile home, they find asbestos. They mark the dangerous object with pink spray paint, and because it contains asbestos, it will get wrapped in thick plastic and then be removed from the property.
It’s a long and arduous process.
"What's unique about this disaster is that there is so much devastation," Calanog said. "It's bigger than any event that any of us have been on."
After the crew has finished with the mobile home park, the debris will get taken to a nearby staging area. When there’s enough waste to fill a shipping container, trucks will drive it to specialized disposal sites hundreds of miles away.
And they’ll do this over and over again until the cleanup is complete, which according to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, should be in about four months.