Wildfires Create New Danger: Hazardous Debris
The latest wildfires in California have left more than 80 people dead, 161,000 acres burned, and more than 10,000 homes and structures destroyed. But as changing weather patterns and the tireless work of firefighters help boost containment lines, communities devastated by the fires now face potential health risks associated with the improper handling of fire debris.
Returning residents should avoid extensive sweeping or sifting through ash or debris before cleanup by designated agencies begins. Exposure to ash, soot, and other hazardous material left in the wake of wildfires can cause serious and potentially deadly health problems.
Fire ash contains tiny particles of dust, dirt, and soot that can be inhaled if the ash becomes airborne. These particles could contain trace amounts of metals like lead, cadmium, nickel and arsenic; asbestos from older homes or other buildings; perfluorochemicals (from degradation of non-stick cookware, for example); flame retardants; and caustic materials. In addition to irritating your skin, nose, and throat, substances like asbestos, nickel, arsenic, and cadmium have been known to cause cancer.
- Experts say it’s best to avoid any activity that disturbs the debris or kicks ash and associated chemicals into the air.
- Those working directly with wildfire debris are advised to wear gloves, long shirts and pants, and other clothing to help prevent skin contact.
- It’s best to change shoes and clothing once off-site to avoid contaminating other areas.
- Masks certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are also recommended when exposure to wildfire dust or ash can’t be avoided.
CalEPA recommends NIOSH-certified air-purifying respirator masks, which can be found at most hardware stores. A mask rated N-95 is much more effective than simpler dust or surgical masks in blocking particles from ash. Although smaller sized masks may appear to fit a child’s face, none of the manufacturers recommend their use for children. If children are in an area that warrants wearing a mask, they should be moved to an environment with cleaner air.
Safe sifting through your property will NOT jeopardize your claims for disaster assistance. However, property owners are advised against initiating actual cleanup activities or significantly disturbing the debris by moving it to other areas. Expanding the ash footprint on the property creates additional safety hazards and expenses during the cleanup process. Contact your local officials for further guidance on these activities.