By Adrienne Moore

SAN ANDREAS (CBS13) – The Butte Fire is the seventh most destructive fire in state history. Cleaning up after it has become an even bigger mess.

Dozens of frustrated fire victims have reached out to CBS13 saying county crews aren’t working fast enough to clear debris from properties so they can rebuild.

What are environmental health crews in Calaveras County up against? We went to San Andreas to get answers.

“This is a monumental project,” said John De Angelis, who lost his home in the Butte Fire.

Signs of rebirth are being kicked up among the dust of a painful past.

“It’s part of moving on; the fire already happened; everything is gone. It’s just stuff, and this helps us move forward so we can rebuild,” said De Angelis.

De Angelis watches from the grass he planted back in 2002 as a 12-man army moves onto his 40-acre property with backhoes, bulldozers and dump trucks.

Three months after the Butte Fire, Calaveras County crews are here to clear out what’s left of his home and his son’s next door.

“We’re just going to move on from this. That’s the biggest part — is being able to move on, and this clean-up is the biggest part of it. All that sound, everything I hear this is like fantastic!” he said.

But the process isn’t easy. Hazardous materials and metals are hauled away first, making room for debris-removal teams to clear out what’s left.

Operations chief Andy Marino oversees the work.

“It takes a while to get these projects started. Right now, we’re doing about 3 days per lot,” said Marino.

The 9-hour workday for the 300 people and 200 truckers spread out across the county is made more challenging because of access. And as Marino points out, navigating heavy equipment through narrow, dirt roads and steep terrain is a test of both physical and emotional strength.

“It’s about restoring the community; it’s about helping people out. You know, you see these big guys, these brute contractor guys and laborers and they’re crying like the rest of us, you know,” he said.

Tiny trinkets that survived the flames are boxed up for De Angelis to sort through, with each item being carefully logged.

Everything from the foundation to ash is scraped from the property before soil samples can be taken to make sure nothing toxic remains on site.

Once crews finish filling this dump truck, they’ll cover it with a giant tarp so none of the contents spill out during transport.

With nearly 780 properties on the county’s list, 257 have been cleared so far.

For De Angelis, it’s a much-needed gift, just in time for Christmas.

“I don’t know about calling it closure because everything is still going on around you, but it’s a big step toward moving on,” said De Angelis.

The county’s goal is to have 300 properties cleared by Christmas. With the upcoming storm, the number of crews will be cut in half, because the conditions can become so dangerous to work in.

Adrienne Moore