By James Powers, Brittany Perkins, J.D., M.SAME, and Dow Knight, M.SAME   

The Northern California wildfires in October 2017 hold unfortunate rankings in California history: the costliest-ever disaster response in the state; the most destructive fire (Tubbs Fire); and the largest debris removal mission since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

After 2017’s wildfires in Northern California, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received a debris removal and disposal mission in Sonoma, Lake, Napa, and Mendocino Counties. PHOTO COURTESY ASHBRITT ENVIRONMENTAL INC.

The fires also hold historical significance for the federal response system, having triggered a unique request from the State of California to the President of the United States for direct federal assistance for debris removal, becoming the first modern instance the federal government, through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), led a fire debris mission in California. From Oct. 8 through Oct. 31, the wildfires burned over 245,000-acres across nine counties, destroyed at least 8,900 structures, forced 100,000 people to evacuate, and took the lives of 44 people. Approximately 11,000 firefighters from 17 states along with Australia battled the fires. Over 2.2-million-T of debris would eventually be collected—more than the weight of two Golden Gate Bridges.


On Oct. 10, 2017, President Trump declared a major disaster, directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to initiate disaster relief under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Under the law, USACE supports FEMA in carrying out the National Response Plan, which calls on 30 federal departments and agencies to provide coordinated disaster relief and recovery operations. USACE typically provides support to Emergency Support Function 3 (ESF 3), which includes public works and engineering-related support.

Under ESF 3, debris management missions may be executed by USACE as a direct federal assistance mission. To respond to a debris management mission, the Corps maintains eight single award task order debris contracts, one for each division, under its Advanced Contract Initiative. The current contracts have a value of $240 million. An additional $580 million is reserved for small business set-asides, for a total capacity of $2.5 billion.

USACE received a debris removal and disposal mission from FEMA for Sonoma, Lake, Napa, and Mendocino Counties, as the primary agency for ESF 3. On Oct. 29, USACE Sacramento District, one of seven districts providing fire debris planning and response teams, began issuing task orders to the contractors pre-assigned to USACE South Pacific Division.

The 2017 Northern California wildfires burned over 245,000-acres across nine counties, destroyed at least 8,900 structures, forced 100,000 people to evacuate, and took the lives of 44 people. PHOTO COURTESY ASHBRITT ENVIRONMENTAL INC.


Initially, impacted property owners could participate in the federal government clean-up program or utilize a private contractor. Later, the state’s independent program became an option.

The federal-led work was conducted in two phases. In Phase 1, the Environmental Protection Agency and California Department of Toxic Substances Control removed household hazardous waste and conducted asbestos testing. Debris removal was Phase 2. USACE coordinated with local governments to obtain Rights of Entry for each parcel that opted to use the federal clean-up program. With these in hand, contractors conducted the initial site assessment. Utilities were identified and marked; archaeologists and Native American tribal monitors reviewed sites for items of historic or cultural significance; and fire-damaged trees were removed if they presented a hazard and initial erosion control was installed. Property owners were given a 48-hour notice prior to operations commencing.

Debris crews would then mobilize to the property. A crew typically consisted of two excavators with operators, laborers, a water truck and dust suppression field team, usually between four and eight hauling trucks, a safety officer, project field manager, quality control representative, and a USACE quality assurance inspector.

Environmental teams provided community and individual air monitoring for dust and air borne contaminants. Per contract requirements, concrete damaged by exposure to high heat was removed. Recyclable concrete and metal was sorted, segregated, and taken to local recycling facilities. Destroyed vehicles were cleared by the State Department of Motor Vehicles and hauled to recycling. Appliances, both with and without Freon, were removed and disposed. Ash and contaminated soil was collected, wrapped in plastic (called burrito wrapping), placed in a tarp-covered dump bed, and taken to an approved landfill. Fencing was installed in locations where a fall hazard existed.


All material removed was tracked using an Automated Debris Management System (ADMS) through bar codes on trucks and hand-held tracking devices. A quality control representative scanned each load of material at the property and landfill/ recycle facility. Both California and USACE officials monitored progress and debris collection through the ADMS.

Once a property was cleared of debris, soil samples were collected, tested, and compared against established state and federal clean-up standards. Properties above threshold clean-up goals were re-scraped until the results came in under the targets. Final erosion control measures then were installed.

With debris removal complete, a final operations report was prepared for the parcel owner and the property was transferred from USACE to the local government, and then back to the parcel owner.

A California Army National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter conducts an aerial survey of the devastation and drops water on the fires in and around Santa Rosa, Calif., Oct. 11, 2017. CALIFORNIA NATIONAL GUARD PHOTO



There were challenges to the debris removal, including limited operational capacity at disposal facilities and access problems. Coordination between local government, waste facilities, and contractors addressed the disposal challenges by investing in resources (light towers, scales, staff), implementing a tare weight system, and authorizing additional capacity at landfills.

Access issues were alleviated by providing temporary bridges and roads.


USACE prioritized safety above all else during the debris removal mission in Northern California. Personal protective equipment used for wildfire cleanup included hard hats, eye protection, hearing protection, gloves, work shirt/pants, steel/composite toed boots and class II/III high-visible vests. This level of personal protective equipment is known in the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response regulations as Level D protection.

When the performance work statement dictated level D protection, personal protective equipment included Tyvek coveralls and N95 masks as additional precautions for workers operating excavators and dust suppression equipment.


Federal government contractors stand ready 365 days a year to deploy teams and resources within hours of contract activation. These firms bring national logistics and operations experience, specialized expertise, and best management practices to a community immediately after a disaster. Debris removal contractors do not bring a convoy of equipment to each disaster site. By design, the industry is set up such that response firms, specifically those under contract to USACE, are largely subcontractor driven. Companies have networks of subcontractors and equipment vendors across the country ready to respond, wherever a disaster may occur.

Alongside nationally sourced resources, operations are strengthened with local partners and localized knowledge. Moreover, a disaster can bring economic uncertainty for small businesses and result in fewer opportunities to keep workers employed. By prioritizing local, small and disadvantaged businesses, response contractors drive local economic recovery alongside physical recovery.

Contractors working after the Northern California fires included those under USACE, under the state’s program, and privately hired contractors. At its peak daily operations, AshBritt, the primary debris contractor for South Pacific Division’s Advanced Contract Initiative, operated over 100 crews with more than 500 trucks and 400 pieces of equipment. In total, AshBritt utilized more than 1,300 debris hauling trucks and hired more than 400 contractors, five local tribal partners employing 40 people, and 11 local archeologists/ archeological support personnel. Over 2,000 people were employed.


In June 2018, USACE formally ended the debris removal mission, having collected 2.2-million-T of debris and cleared 4,563 properties. In the face of a historic disaster and an equally historic response, the clean-up was efficient and a success.

Still, there is a long road to recovery and many lessons to learn, because each year brings the threat of another major wildfire. Government, the private sector, and citizens must work together to strengthen mitigation, planning, and preparedness efforts to ensure the health, safety, and security of our communities, and our nation.


James Powers is Project Environmental Compliance Manager, Brittany Perkins, J.D., M.SAME, is CEO, and Dow Knight, M.SAME, is Senior Vice President and Mission Operations Manager for the USACE WildFire Debris Mission, AshBritt Environmental Inc. They can be reached at;; and

[This article first published in the September-October 2018 issue of The Military Engineer]