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Cleanup of Oakland Fire Debris Begins

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Douglas Landreth watched as a crane lifted what was left of his 1987 Honda Accord LX, once equipped “with all the goodies,” from its precarious hillside perch in the fire-ravaged Hiller Highlands.

“I wish they had waited another day so that the insurance adjuster could have seen it,” Landreth said, a mournful look on his face.

More than a week after a wind-whipped inferno devastated many of the East Bay’s most desirable neighborhoods, the city of Oakland has taken the first steps toward cleaning up the tons of ash and debris and the forest of unstable brick chimneys that are the pathetic remains of the fire. The city has said about 2,600 houses and 450 apartments were destroyed.

The first order of business was to begin removing scores of torched vehicles--their windshields melted like Salvador Dali watches and their tires burned away--from the steeply pitched slopes. The city hired an Oakland contractor to haul the cars to scrap metal dealers.

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Oakland has taken the lead in attempting to coordinate the cleanup from the fire, which erupted Oct. 20. ICF Kaiser Engineers, an Oakland engineering and construction services company, has been hired to develop and oversee a plan.

The city has announced that it will use hired crews to clear sites and demolish chimneys and other structures that pose an immediate danger. Property owners are being given the option to do their own cleanup and avoid receiving a bill from the city.

Officials trying to get the job under way have been hampered by disputes over who will pay, and the logistics of working on the hillsides and narrow streets. Questions have been raised about the stability of the burned-over slopes and no one is sure how best to dispose of the charred trees and the remnants of cars, appliances and chimneys.

Fears have also surfaced about possible harm to cleanup workers and homeowners from hazardous substances, especially asbestos. Many concrete foundations, too weakened by the 2,000-degree flames to be reused, also must be broken up and carted off.

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Alan Dones, an Oakland construction company executive heading a Chamber of Commerce cleanup committee, said an early estimate puts the cleanup cost at $10 million, a figure that he added is probably low.

One major source of funds will be homeowners’ insurance policies, which routinely cover debris removal in such cases. Insurers typically will pay homeowners, who in turn could hire a cleanup crew or reimburse the city.

Oakland also hopes to tap funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state Office of Emergency Services, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention and other agencies.

As it is, the cash-strapped city has already laid out nearly $8 million in fire-related costs for equipment and personnel. Making matters worse, it stands to lose an estimated $2.36 million in tax revenues as fire victims’ houses are reassessed.

Many property owners who are eager to start rebuilding are opposed to a mass cleanup by the city of Oakland, contending that they could clear sites more efficiently, carefully and cheaply.

“I’m going to start rebuilding next week,” said Milt Brown, a builder who lost two houses in the fire. “If the city does it, it might take six months.”

Brown added that cleanup workers could avoid inhaling potentially hazardous particles or fumes by wearing respirators.

Dones acknowledged that many homeowners probably will want to handle their own cleanups, partly to do one last search for mementos.

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“They have a fear of bulldozers coming in and clearing the side of a hill,” he said. “They want to be right there. When you’ve lost a lifetime of possessions, the smallest keepsake can be of extreme importance.”

Meanwhile, investigators seeking a cause of the fire that killed at least 25 people are looking into evidence of a homeless encampment in the brushy hills where the blaze began. A makeshift barbecue pit is suspected of being the source of the fire, and a bedroll and other signs of habitation have been found nearby.


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