Jason Cowan
The Union Democrat

After more than seven months of cleaning debris caused by the Butte Fire, Calaveras County officials Thursday celebrated what they were calling “the last load.”

Technically, it was the second to last load because crews needed one more load to complete the job, but it signified the end of cleanup from the fire that destroyed more than 900 structures last September.

About a dozen officials and other onlookers, including District 5 Supervisor Steve Kearney, watched as bulldozers picked up debris at the end of Baker Riley Way in Mountain Ranch.

The property was in the rural hillsides of a devastated region. On the way to the site, a large pile of dead trees had been placed off the road. Countless charred, leafless trees stuck out from the earth as far as the eye could see.

About 3 p.m. Thursday, a truck inched down a dirt road and into a steep canyon. The debris, mostly large, concrete boulders and some dirt, was loaded by a sizeable yellow wheel loader.

Shortly after hearing the loud clank of the cement in the truck, a faint “woo” could be heard. About five minutes later, a toast of sparkling grape juice marked the end of a process that began in October and cleared 851 properties.

When asked if the toughest jobs were saved for last, Mel Knight, public information officer for debris removal operations, said they were not. But the task at the end of Baker Riley Way, to access three properties, was among the more difficult.

Because a creek separated the road from the properties, a bridge had to be built to the lots. The temporary bridge required permits from the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Todd Thalhamer, operations chief for CalRecycle, said it took about two hours to obtain the permit and two days to build the bridge. He said the bridge could handle an 80,000-pound load.

“It can take an M1 tank,” Thalhamer said.

Thalhamer said cleanup crews have cleared between 10,000 and 20,000 truckloads of debris. He said each truck can hold between 20 to 40 tons per load. He did not have the exact figure on how much debris was transported on Thursday.

Thalhamer, who is also working disasters in Lake and Trinity counties, said the cleanup in Calaveras County was unique. He said the number of properties spread over the 70,000 acres was challenging.

“It was not just a house. It was this ranchette, that ranchette,” Thalhamer said. “You had to mobilize and demobilize. Move people from point a to point b, rebuild roads.”

Now that all properties are cleared, the county will focus on removing destroyed trees that may threaten roadways. It will require a Right of Entry form from some property owners.

A map provided by the county showed most of the parcels cleared occurred in almost a circular path between Mokelumne Hill and Sheep Ranch. The most northern property cleared was north of Glencoe. The most southern was along Old Gulch Road.

At its peak, 331 people worked on the cleanup force and 200 were hired and trained locally, according to a handout from the county. The number of crews grew from six last October to 31 in February. On Thursday, two crews worked the final parcels.

As the truck carrying the ceremonious load of debris and the attendees began to file into their cars to leave the canyon, Kearney acknowledged some irony.

“I was the first supervisor to see the smoke from the fire, now I am the first supervisor to see the last bit of debris ship away,” he said.