Sept. 28, the Town Crier photographed warning signs on several home sites burned in the Cranston Fire, and copies of the county’s declaration of local health emergency and order concerning debris removal. By Oct. 12, many of the signs, and the declaration and order, had been removed. Photo by Debra Varnado

Several residents of Idyllwild and Mountain Center are still actively dealing with the consequences of the Cranston Fire. For them, the fire didn’t just tear through the San Bernardino National Forest burning five watersheds. It didn’t just burn trees, chaparral and other vegetation over thousands of acres. It didn’t just kill animals and devastate their safe havens.

Almost three months ago, the fire touched their lives more acutely, in untold material loss, and perhaps emotional distress so profound and overwhelming that it hasn’t been — can’t be — fully expressed or imagined.

Thirteen properties were destroyed: eight single-family homes, and five outbuildings and structures. Owners of those homes returned from the Hill’s evacuation to find burned-out shells and ashes where they once lived — alongside properties that had been spared. Rubble, debris, blackened trees and chimneys stood as stark reminders of the catastrophe that struck them, their families and mountain.

On top of the wrenching horror, they found notices warning that unsafely removing fire-related debris could expose them to toxic materials and spread hazardous substances throughout their beloved neighborhoods and community. Within days after the alleged arsonist started the fire, Riverside County Environmental Health Officer Cameron Kaiser declared a local health emergency. Fortunately, no lives were lost and only three injuries were recorded.

For the last several weeks, the county has been safely removing the fire-related debris from the burned residences under its voluntary fire debris clearance program. During property inspections, the Environmental Health Department’s HazMat team “tested and identified household hazardous waste and debris including batteries (solar lights), paints, wood stain, automotive batteries, used oil, and cylinders. The Waste Resources Department (DWR) consolidated and transported the waste and tested all thirteen properties for asbestos.”

Riverside County Department of Waste workers remove debris from property burned by the Cranston Wildfire.
Photo courtesy Riverside County Department of Waste Resources

DWR General Manager-Chief Engineer Hans Kernkamp said “Six of the eight burned single-family homes tested positive for asbestos. Three of the six that tested positive have been abated — the asbestos containing material has been removed … and the clean-up is complete. One single-family site where no asbestos-containing material was found … has been cleared of household hazardous waste …” Altogether, four of the eight single-family homes destroyed have been cleaned up

“The amount of hazardous waste we removed is pretty significant and varies from property to property, but the quantity of asbestos-containing materials would be pretty small. And there is always a concern related to environmental damage if rain washes material downstream,” said Kernkamp.

“We are only focusing on the homes and structures that were more than 50 percent damaged, which my understanding is, they’re just basically burnt to the ground. We’re just dealing with that to get them [the homeowners] going and we would want … to know about any issues so we can address them.”

The Department of Emergency Management also played a major role in the county’s emergency response and the clearance program. In addition to ensuring the county departments, agencies, cities and special districts were coordinated overall in their response to the fire, EMD activated the county’s Emergency Operations Center, facilitated staff visits to the burn sites, and escorted the teams during initial inspections.

DWR Assistant Chief Engineer Joe McCann, said, “Approximately $237,000 has been budgeted for consultant and contractor assistance for asbestos surveys and for removal, transport and disposal of the asbestos debris.

“The costs are not property specific. Those numbers will not be available until the end of the [clearance] program and the figures do not include all of the costs for labor and equipment … The total costs incurred by the DWR, DEH and EMD also have not been determined.

“The county is absorbing the program’s costs initially and expects to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Office of Emergency Services once the project is complete.”

Dotti Merki, DEH program chief/public information officer, said, “Homeowners can opt out of the county’s clearance program, but must submit a work plan for DEH and DWR approval, and use a contractor and meet the required county standards.

“Post-debris cleanup soil sampling must be completed. Environmental Health’s Environmental Clean-up Program will likely oversee the soil sampling post-cleanup, but [we’re] not sure who will be paying for those sampling tests costs yet for the properties that are in the Debris Removal Program — DEH or DWR.

“All costs are on the homeowners who opt out of the program. The property owner can hire a third-party contractor that specializes in fire debris cleanup.”

McCann said, “The property owner would be responsible for any costs beyond household hazardous waste removal, the asbestos survey and removal, and basic cleanup assistance. Those costs could be items such as tree removal, regrading, rebuilding, landscaping, permitting and more. The labor and equipment costs for basic cleanup would be additional costs borne by the property, if insurance doesn’t cover it.”

The debris clearance program also provides a reduced per bin cost of $374 to owners of fire-damaged properties, including to property owners who opt out of the program. Bins are provided by haulers hired by the county.

“I’ve heard folks are very appreciative of the [clearance program’s] help,” McCann added.