Crews begin removing debris from homes destroyed by fire 

Crews started to remove debris today from a few of the homes destroyed by the deadly explosion and fire in San Bruno earlier this month as part of a weeks-long cleanup effort at the disaster site.

The Sept. 9 pipeline explosion and fire killed seven people and destroyed 37 homes, leaving rubble and debris strewn across several residential streets in the Crestmoor Canyon neighborhood.

Workers began to clear the debris from three of those homes today, and dozens more will be cleared away in the next few weeks, said Dean Peterson, director of San Mateo County's environmental health division, which is overseeing the cleanup process.

Crews are first focusing on the homes at 1701 Earl Ave., 1650 Claremont Drive and 1101 Fairmont Drive, three of the 29 homes whose owners have signed up to have the county take care of the cleanup process.

Of the other eight homes officially "red-tagged" by authorities as destroyed structures, two were severely damaged, but the property owners have the option of repairing them, Peterson said.

The fate of the other six homes depends on the decision of their owners, who have not confirmed their cleanup plans with the county.

"As you can imagine, it's been a very emotional time for them, with their homes now turned into rubble," Peterson said.

The owners who have agreed to let the county handle the cleanup "have for the most part been very positive," he said. "They understand what has to happen, and are relieved to a point that they don't have to worry about this process, that someone else is worrying about this process for them."

The effort began a couple of days after the disaster struck, when crews from state and local agencies went through all the destroyed homes and removed as much hazardous waste -- including paints, pesticides and other chemicals -- as they could find. Ten 55-gallon drums of the hazardous materials were taken away, Peterson said.

On Monday, crews started pre-soaking the destroyed homes to minimize the potentially harmful ash and dust particles that could get kicked up into the air during the cleanup.

Today they began removing some of the larger pieces of debris, such as house foundations and chimneys, while also using more water to dampen the ash and dust, Peterson said.

He said the cleanup would take three to four weeks if all goes well, but it could take longer if winds spread ash and dust away from the site.

"That (time frame) will definitely change if the winds don't cooperate, and as we know in San Bruno, that often doesn't happen," Peterson said.

Various agencies have been testing the neighborhood's air quality in the days since the fire and have not found anything dangerous thus far. Air monitoring will continue during the debris removal process, he said.

Crews will be working from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays, although no loud machinery will be used until after 10 a.m.

Debris is being taken from the site to a landfill in unincorporated Solano County east of Vacaville, Peterson said.

"We're doing as much as we can to recycle as much as possible," he said. "Vehicles have been taken to scrap yards, concrete is being taken to a recycler. We're trying to limit the material that truly needs to go to the landfill."

The total cost of cleaning up the neighborhood is expected to run between $1.7 million and $2 million, he said.

On Tuesday, the San Bruno City Council also authorized the execution of a contract worth $108,480 with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office to provide 24-hour security as mutual aid agencies have to draw down their assistance to the city.

Security officers will be working in the area for the next four weeks and will be reporting to the San Bruno Police Department, according to city officials.

The City Council also agreed to waive certain bills for residents whose houses were destroyed or damaged in the disaster.

Those customers will not have to pay water and waste bills for August and September, according to city officials.

Authorities hope to provide daily updates to the public on the cleanup process via the city's website, www.sanbruno.ca.gov, Peterson said.

Anyone with questions or concerns about the cleanup effort is asked to call the hotline set up for the disaster at (650) 616-7180.

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