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Endangered frogs delay Camp fire cleanup

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Environmental concerns, including fear of harming a sensitive frog species, have forced Camp fire crews to back away from cleaning some properties in the Paradise area.

State officials tasked with debris cleanup say they have been directed not to enter an estimated 800 burned Butte County home sites within 100 feet of a waterway. They’ve been told to wait for representatives of several state and federal agencies to reach an agreement on environmental assessment guidelines.

The issue cropped up well into a year-long, estimated $2 billion-plus cleanup operation at about 11,000 properties in Paradise, Concow and Magalia that burned in November’s Camp fire, the most destructive blaze in state history.

The revelation that some stream-side properties are now on hold triggered a strong public rebuke Thursday from two local legislators who said they heard about the issue from angry constituents on the ridge.

In statement calling the situation “absurd,” Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, and Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, lamented “that frogs, birds and waterways are causing work to stop in some areas.”

The pair said the state Office of Emergency Services and other agencies deserve kudos for ramping up debris cleaning operations since spring weather started, but pointed out “survivors are anxious to rebuild or move on. Our neighbors have gone through hell in this disaster, and must be the priority.”

An OES spokesman said state Fish and Wildlife officials informed other agencies that 800 properties near waterways will require an extra level of site assessment before they are allowed to be cleaned, to make sure the work will not cause environmental harm, including to an endangered frog species that resides on the ridge.

State Fish and Wildlife officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Eric Lamoureux of Cal OES said the state expects to have a protocol in place in the next few days. “We are close to finalizing those plans. We are trying to balance the need to get these properties cleared as quickly as possible but also protecting our environment out there.”

He did not say what that protocol would look like, who would be inspecting the home sites, when they would do it, and what would happen at a site if an endangered species were found or some other environmental concern were to arise.

Lamoureux said debris cleanup operations have not been slowed by the environmental questions. State officials said 141 crews are on the hillside daily cleaning other sites, averaging about 100 sites a day. Trucks and rigs dig out the debris, and top soil from burned out home sites, loading them into plastic in trucks to be hauled to Northern California landfills.

The issue has angered some landowners. Alicia Rock, whose home on Clear Creek was destroyed in the fire, said she moved quickly to get the rebuilding permit process going, and thought her property’s cleanup was going to happen Tuesday, but now has been told she must wait indefinitely.

She said she even warned officials early in winter, when the creek was high, that debris was being pulled into the creek. She called the situation “stupid.”

“I have followed the process to a T. Now I am being held up,” she said. “Come on guys, you’ve had six months. You knew this was coming.”

The Camp fire rages through the town of Paradise, Calif., in Butte County on November 8, 2018. (Neal Waters/Zuma Press/TNS)