In a display of interstate cooperation, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) has effectively wrapped up the intricate planning phase of an unprecedented debris removal operation following the historic wildfires that impacted Maui in August 2023. Cal OES’ debris team has deep experience in wildfire recovery that played a pivotal role in paving the way for Maui’s recovery.
Cal OES personnel deployed to assist Maui in their recovery efforts following wildfires returned safely on September 30 concluding their successful mission.
Over many weeks, the mission initiated critical steps for the foundation of a comprehensive debris removal process.
John Catching, the Recovery Infrastructure Branch Chief at Cal OES was on Maui and helped coordinate California’s response efforts.
“Timely and effective debris removal in Lahaina is crucial for immediate and sustained recovery for the community. Ensuring the elimination of public health risks stemming from the initial wildfire disaster before rebuilding homes, schools, and businesses is essential in averting potential secondary disasters,” said Catching.
This coordinated effort, led by California through state-level mutual aid, effectively categorizes and manages the combined efforts of state, federal, and local entities involved in the removal process.
Notably, the team’s efforts secured sweeping approval from FEMA for a wildfire cleanup program, surpassing the scope of funding typically seen in such operations. This approval signifies a major step forward in supporting Maui’s recovery efforts.
The proper disposal and management of residential wildfire debris is a reoccurring challenge following every major wildfire disaster. Through an unfortunate series of destructive wildfires in California, the Cal OES debris removal team has become a world leader in wildfire recovery operations. California conducted the foundational science on proper wildfire debris management and allowed Hawaii to leverage these studies to advance their recovery.
“You have to physically clear the way for recovery. You have to make sure that Lahaina is a safe place where folks don’t have to worry about toxins in the soil or in the air, and a well-rounded debris removal program will get them to that point in six to 12 months,” said Cole Glenwright, the Chief of the Cal OES Debris Operations Unit.
A publicly funded and operated, comprehensive debris removal program is a critical step in the recovery process, considering the costly alternatives. Private wildfire debris removal programs typically cost homeowners around $70,000. Fortunately, thanks to a strong partnership with HI-EMA, FEMA, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Maui County has made debris removal available at no out-of-pocket cost to Maui County survivors, including business owners.
Additionally, the Cal OES team played a key role in the development of a comprehensive debris management plan for the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency. This plan outlined the entire scope of the wildfire debris removal operation, ensuring a coordinated effort among various federal agencies. For agencies outside California, who don’t typically handle complex wildfire recovery missions, this was invaluable.
Reflecting on their contribution, the Cal OES debris removal team emphasized the importance of effective and efficient debris removal. Without it, the path to rebuilding would be significantly more challenging.
As the team returns home, they leave behind a community poised to transition from the planning phase to full-scale debris removal operations. The enrollment process is underway for the Consolidated Debris Removal Program, marking a significant milestone in Maui’s recovery journey.
The team expressed gratitude for the opportunity to lead and serve, highlighting the selflessness of their members who answered the call for assistance with unwavering dedication. Their collective efforts have not only shaped the recovery trajectory of Maui but have also exemplified the strength of mutual aid in times of adversity.
For more information on the Maui wildfire recovery efforts including how to sign up for the Consolidated Debris Removal Program, survivors should visit MauiRecovers.org.