I-Team discovers massive government waste in Camp Fire cleanup, deadliest wildfire in CA history

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Friday, March 11, 2022
Why government cleanup is stressing out Camp Fire survivors
The ABC7 News I-Team is investigating why the government is charging homeowners so much for Camp Fire cleanup, among other questionable practices.

PARADISE, Calif. (KGO) -- More than three years after the deadliest wildfire in California history, there now new questions about the cost of the cleanup, and how the government program continues to stress out homeowners who have already been through so much.

I-Team reporter Dan Noyes says there's one basic question before us - can the government do a job better than the private sector? In this case, we're talking about removing debris from homes destroyed by the Camp Fire.

Radio traffic squawked, "This has got potential for a major incident."

The Sawyer family barely escaped the Camp Fire, November 8, 2018. They were stuck in that horrible traffic jam as flames devoured the town of Paradise, and returned four days later to see what was left of their home.

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"It was still on fire, so I couldn't spend a lot of time here. All of the lines were down and it was tremendously dangerous to come here," Mandy Feder-Sawyer said.

When they finally could return safely, Mandy's husband, a rock singer, recorded a music video in the ashes.

Larry Sawyer sang, "Where do we run?"

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And Mandy put her skills to work. The Chico State journalism professor had many questions about the government response, how teams from Cal OES, Cal Recycle and FEMA cleaned up the debris and sent bills to homeowners.

Dan Noyes: "What's your first reaction when you see that bill?"

Mandy Feder-Sawyer: "That's crazy, because it was almost $84,000."

The government charged $84,000 to clear the ash and rubble of her home, when a private company cleared another family member's lot - with more significant asbestos issues - for much less.

Mandy Feder-Sawyer: "It was $26,000."

Dan Noyes: "$26,000. Was theirs done with a private contractor?"

Mandy Feder-Sawyer: "Private contractor."

Dan Noyes: "There's the difference, right?"

Mandy Feder-Sawyer: "Yes."

Turns out, the private companies are cheaper, not only for the homeowners, but also for you because of how your tax dollars are being spent.

Federal and state tax dollars cover most of the Camp Fire cleanup - that's your money, more than a billion dollars for the program. Homeowners are only responsible for what their insurance pays for debris removal, if anything at all.

TIMELINE VIDEO: The evacuation of Paradise from beginning to end

The blaze destroyed nearly 14,000 homes and left at least 85 dead with many still unaccounted for.

Mandy Feder-Sawyer is now writing an article for the local newspaper and she asked me to help investigate the Camp Fire cleanup program.

Dan Noyes: "In the big picture, what's the importance of the story? Why is this an important thing to think about and talk about?"

Mandy Feder-Sawyer: "I think, for all of us to understand where your tax dollars are going, and why, why there's such a huge discrepancy."

We have documented case after case in which the government charged much more than private contractors - up to ten times more.

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Max Gardner told the I-Team, "If they were a regular business, they would be out of business."

Gardner drove a dump truck for a private contractor that cleared 57 homes destroyed by the Camp Fire and charged much less than the government for each project.

Max Gardner: "You know, we take it down to the soil where you don't see any more ash. Then we'll take it down another two to three inches. And it's all been passed."

Gardner says the government crews removed much more soil; those lots around Paradise are easy to spot.

Dan Noyes: "I see those divots, those massive divots that are like swimming pools. Why would they do that?"

Max Gardner: "Because they get paid by the ton. We didn't get paid by the ton. We're just charging-"

Dan Noyes: "Paid by the job."

Max Gardner: "By the job."

And the problem with a hole that deep - you have to fill it before you can rebuild, and that can be expensive. Just ask Dick Randlett and his fiancé Carol Jones. After their guest house burned to the ground, the government crew left an 80-foot-long hole from three to six feet deep.

Dick Randlett: "That's a huge hole, and you can't have that hole and build in it, you got to bring it back up."

They also received an $84,000 cleanup bill from the government - still stressful even though they understand that taxpayers are picking up most of the tab.

Dan Noyes: "What has it been like going through all this?"

Carol Jones: "I was wishing our house would have burned down, too, so we could just leave."

A spokesman for Cal Recycle, Chris McSwain, declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement, he defended the government charging more than private companies for the Camp Fire cleanup, saying, "The state-managed program went beyond loading ash into trucks" and included formal, verified safety protocols, air quality testing, protection for streambeds and more.

Former Paradise Mayor Scott Lotter's family lost two homes and a rental property. He encouraged people to use the government cleanup program, but now has a different view.

Dan Noyes: "And you consider the private company doing it versus the government doing it."

Scott Lotter: "Right."

Dan Noyes: "What was the difference?"

Scott Lotter: "Just, you know, buckets full of dollars was, was the big difference."

Lotter tells us the costs should have been more in line. Before anyone began to haul away debris, the State Department of Toxic Substances removed the serious dangers, such as batteries, toxins, lead and asbestos.

"Whether that was public or private cleanup, the nasty stuff had been removed and cleared before anybody came in to clean things up."

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Lotter also questions the government's choice of Tetra Tech to oversee the program. The company is being sued over the cleanup of San Francisco's Hunters Point shipyard, after two of its scientists admitted faking soil samples and went to prison.

The I-Team spoke with the U.S. congressman representing the district that includes Paradise, Doug LaMalfa, about the controversy and the cost.

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A driver flees as trees and buildings go up in flames around the road during the devastating wildfires in Napa and Sonoma counties in October of 2017. (KGO-TV)

He said, "I can see there's gonna be a little bit more overhead in maybe in a government process. There's a couple more boxes to check on safety or what have you, but double and triple the price. And these are some of the same figures I'm hearing is on the average triple the price. Why does it have to be that way?"

Good question.

LaMalfa is concerned that, as we head into another fire season, these exorbitant costs for cleanup will become the norm. He also believes us raising these issues is an important step to getting the costs under control.

If you care about this, speak up. It's your money.