Cleanup From California Fires Poses Environmental and Health Risks

Even as the fires still burn, public health officials and environmental cleanup experts are starting to think about the next chapter of the disaster.

Comments: 44

  1. October 19 marks 26 years since the Oakland, Berkeley firestorm of 1991. The fire was a large suburban wildland-urban interface conflagration that occurred on the hillsides of northern Oakland, California, and southeastern Berkeley. One would think there were lessons learned, dos, and don't that should be noted. Not to mention readers and fire victims would simply be interested to know how those 1991 fire victims handled the cleanup and rebuild. Though only peripherally involved at the time I remember articles re battles with insurance companies, people moving to cleanup as quickly as they could, and many rebuilt. Today you would never know that the hills looked like Sherman's army had gone through them, just ash and chimneys. The article (as usual) makes too big a deal of the hazards. With the proper mask people should be fine and getting sites clean before the rains is obviously a good idea. No one is going to mine the ashes for TV innards.

  2. It’s going to start raining this week. How do you expect the cleanup to be complete before the winter rains? The environmental contamination is a real issue. The article is not hyperbole.

  3. As an environmental enforcement lawyer, I cannot tell you the number of times I encountered hazardous waste site owners who would dip their arms into vats of chemicals to prove there was nothing toxic about them. Invariably and inevitably, each and every one of those owners died of cancer. Exposure to hazardous chemicals, even wholly or partially incinerated ones, is nothing to play with.

  4. the "iconoclast" commenter has presumptious views from a different era of manufacturing, chemicals, processes (some toxic) and air quality,compared to fall/2017...90% likely a guy who wrote this "comment".

  5. So, what are the implications for agriculture and the wine industry? And what about toxicity from fire retardants that may have been sprayed on the ground; will they persist in the environment and end up in products for human consumption? Please publish an article to address these important issues.

  6. The effects on survivors and first responders are unknown, but will probably be similar to those near the WTC on 9/11. Last Monday, just as on 9/11, first responders dove into the conflagration without respirators. Many worked upwards of 70 hours without rest. This video shows a mutual aid Berkeley CA engine arriving in Santa Rosa just a few hours after the fire fighting started.

  7. This story is filled with over-reactions of officials whose jobs depend on the existence of hazards.

  8. I went back through after reading your comment, and I could not identify a reaction that I would consider an over-reaction. Could you be more specific? I can envision myself going through the ruins of my house looking for salvageable stuff, so this article was a good warning against such risky behavior.

  9. Asbestos and heavy metals are an over-reaction??? Get thee to a physics class!

  10. Perhaps you are unaware of the health issues of the 9/11 first responders and those that worked onsite for many months. Toxins can be lethal, just not in the short-term.

  11. FYI - there are no N95 masks left in stores.

  12. Try Through this site, I found one at Cole Hardware, 345 9th St., San Francisco.

  13. Try auto body stores

  14. I'm heading up to Santa Rosa tomorrow to check on my mom, bringing a case or two (as many as I can find today in my town on the Peninsula) of N95 masks to the volunteer center and probably also the fairgrounds. Hopefully others will do the same.

  15. This is the 9-11 mess writ large. I hope people will take precautions. I knew someone who died of lung cancer--not from working on the cleanup, but from walking to work at a city building blocks from the site (and probably breathing the particulates that came in through the building's air system). I hope the state will hire the contractors to clean up, and that residents will stay away. There are no mementos worth your life--it may be hard to see when the danger is 5 years out.

  16. What about the fire retardants in most modern (from late 50s on) upholstered furniture and mattresses? I echo the request for reporting that delves into these concerns in depth.

  17. My mandatory evacuation order was lifted last night, after almost 9 days. And while I'm ecstatic that I have a home to return to, the air quality is palpably dangerous. And I can't even begin to imagine what kind of struggle lies ahead for many of my friends who are homeless and without possessions. Was this disaster preventable? It depends on how it started. If it does turn out to be above ground power lines, though, it would be just one example of systemic infrastructure failure. Another is having a fire department so lean that there were virtually no firefighters in some areas for more than 24 hours, and citizens were defending their own neighborhoods. Another is the failure of local officials to keep fire in mind when granting permits to build where there is no easy access, and no fire hydrants. Additionally, in an age of instant information, meaningful updates were sometimes more than 12 hours apart in our county. It is shameful that one of the richest countries in the world looks like a ghetto with overhead wires marring the landscape, doesn't adequately fund their first responders, pollutes the atmosphere of the planet and then asks for reinforcements from other countries when their penny wise pound foolish policies come to roost.

  18. Remember the winds Sunday night? You could have a fire station on every block and still have a disaster. And remember that much of not most of the property loss was not at what we think of as the urban-outland interface.I agree with much of what you say (still remember my French relatives laughing in disbelief at our wooden power poles), but a little more nuance would be more constructive.

  19. I’m not sure of the ‘nuance’ you seek. The undergrounding of electric transmission lines is long over due in the whole Bay Area, even in highly urbanized areas like SF. As a native Manhattanite, I was shocked at the thicket of electric, telephone, cable, and electric bus overhead wires in my chi-chi Russian Hill neighborhood. But, undergrounding isn’t a perfect solution. Manhattan and downtown SF manhole covers have blown off in underground electric transmission equipment. And, we’ve got Pacific Gas and Electric that cant even get underground high pressure gas pipelines right. There’s another huge inner East Bay risk in a jet fuel pipeline that pumps fuel from the northern Contra Costa refineries to SFO. That one is not PG&E’s. Not sure whose. Maybe Kinder-Morgan. I’m not confident, nonetheless.

  20. Regarding the hazards posed by this toxic ash, I've often wondered the same thing about the after-effects of fire retardant in watersheds, and the environment. It's something nobody really talks about, but I'm almost certain it's bad for the environment, not to mention the firefighters who sometimes have to work in it and breathe the smoke from retardant covered vegetation burning. There's a lot of retardant out there, and it's very costly in a lot of different ways.

  21. Several things spring out when glancing at this well-done article: deep inhalation of micro-particles; protection of groundwater by leaching of heavy metals and toxic organics from unlined landfills; and the need to do a good triage by hazmat protected and trained staffs. This is much more complicated and expensive and time-consuming than we want to accept. Accept it or there will long-term consequences.

  22. They should have a major fundraising music festival, that combines the real rock royalty of the 70's with today's all hedge fund partners with investments/home ownership....real gracious if they could start their own "pools of networked wealth influence" via their "friends"...between the social media/FB grab on music with the private, REAL wealth of hedge funders...the area can concept/organize a real revenue generator.

  23. That will likely happen on a large scale in good time. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation is already funding relief efforts. But, just as the tech companies are holders of great wealth, there is the likely equal collective wealth of the 7.6 million residents of the Bay Area who started giving food, shelter, clothing, money and volunteer time to the firestorm victims in Sonoma/Napa/Mendocino/Lake counties.

  24. Grow a lot of mushrooms, and then don't eat them. Not kidding. Research shows that mushrooms absorb heavy metals from the soil.

  25. This article is hardly hyperbole. In fact, there is much more that can and should be said. No mention here of dioxins, which are the by-product of combustion of forests as well as petrochemical products such as plastics and foams. Beyond piping and electrical wiring, plastic objects and foams are ubiquitous in homes. Dioxins are the most carcinogenic substances currently identified by science. Here is an explanation from WHO: In addition, the fire-retardant chemicals present a great health challenge to firefighters, rescuers, and all of us. Here's an article from Atlantic: Beyond providing extensive aid to those injured or made homeless, of course we must look to the next stage of public health concerns, which involves dealing with highly toxic ash and rubble while limiting contamination of waters, soils and those who live farther afield. A daunting task which requires solid information and education about what we are dealing with here.

  26. The other "net" point to the culmination of your many facts, is the lack of carbon absorption due to the close to 250k acres burned...without these now burned down trees to absorb the carbon, may go eastward to Nevada or west and further acidify/carbonize the Pacific ocean...marine ecosystem/fish, etc. If there is a more correct and proven answer its welcome.

  27. While I would agree with you that dioxins are carcinogenic, they are nowhere near the most carcinogenic compounds known. This is especially true if you consider a compound in terms of its carcinogenic potential (potency of carcinogen X exposure). We are exposed on a daily basis to many other compounds with a much greater carcinogenic potential than dioxins (Ex., aflatoxin found in peanut butter). Based on the amount needed to cause cancer, certain viruses are by far and away the most carcinogenic species.

  28. Though on the other hand, perhaps its the intensity of "bombarding" the human body with these (truly at this point, unknowns as potent air transfers) mix of dioxins... compared to a likely more diluted and structured comparison of one or a few aflatoxin strains.

  29. I am not going to take advice from anybody who thinks burning propane leaves ash.

  30. its the tanks

  31. Everyone should remember what happened to the 9/11 workers when they dug through all the toxic debris. Many are living with health problems and many have died.

  32. To those concerned about fire retardants, they are non-toxic by design. I worked for the DC-10 tanker operation as a aircraft mechanic and was covered in the stuff daily.

  33. This fear of low levels of toxins is truly astounding. If low levels of toxins were, in fact, significant health hazards to humans, we would have gone extinct long ago. The major source of toxins that enter our bodies is plants, including both conventionally grown and "organically" grown plants. With perhaps the exception of some fruits, plants do not really want to be eaten as that prevents them from reproducing. Since plants cannot run, their primary defense against being consumed is the production of toxic. Fortunately, however, we have a liver that is remarkably effective at destroying toxins and protects us against low levels of both human generated and naturally occurring toxins. Likewise, barbecuing meat or vegetables generates large amounts of toxins and coffee is one of the worst in terms of its content of known carcinogens (although multiple studies have shown coffee doesn't cause cancer). The bottom line is this seems like much ado about nothing.

  34. Easy for you to say. Look at how many people in Manhattan got ill and/or died of diseases related to inhalation of toxic materials. The truth is, we don't know precisely what the impact is yet, and we won't know for at least a couple years.

  35. While this is certainly a real concern, this issue is true at EVERY fire site.. even sites where just woods were burning. Fires happen on farms and at farm houses everywhere. They happen in urban areas... what is it about this one that makes people think that it is somehow the one to panic about? Yes, care should be taken in the cleanup. Yes, the issue should probably get more visibility. I am just puzzled that Santa Rosa is getting a grilling for something that happens at every single fire site. What am I missing here?

  36. the close to 6,000 building/home structures...that's what you are clearly out of touch with...drink some soy milk.

  37. You are missing that the urban land area incinerated by the firestorm is far greater than most urban fires which might involve a few structures (exception being the two 110ish-story Twin Towers on 9/11). That urban area was typically small town and suburban. Lots of houses with lead paint, asbestos siding and wire coverings, a few cars per house, electronic devices, tons of everyday plastics, household chemicals, insecticides, herbicides, etc. All these materials are is banned from the main landfill waste stream in CA. We must take these items to designated county hazardous waste disposal sites. What the County does with the waste, I don’t know. But, I bet my bottom dollar the waste is not incinerated.

  38. What you're missing is that it is 5,000+ individual homes and businesses, not just trees and underbrush. Each can be different from the ones on either side of it and each is a site where people will, some day, again be living. A bit more than cleaning up a forest where people may or may not ever be present

  39. I strongly suggest that those seeking to rebuild move to Fairfield County. Similar feel. Similar professions. Better schools. No fires or Hurricanes.

  40. FFLD County...what a lame joke from this guy! Don't listen to this guy, he's totally uninformed as an "apparent" CT resident. ITs been all over our news, the State is massively in debt to a record level without a viable budget/allocation plan, confirmed they'll cut funds on municipal education, healthcare, special needs kids, etc....the schools in FFLD Cty, sure New Canaan recently got #1 position for CT schools, though they'll all very close in FFld Cty. CT had its FIRST loss of residents in 2015...1% left the State without new resident arrivals to make up the slack. Parts of the good ole "Nutmeg" State are still certainly beautiful!!

  41. my heart goes out to all of those affected.

  42. The Sonoma County officials are in overdrive trying to get a handle on the myriad needs of the community. The local radio station, KSRO, has similarly been in overdrive reporting the disaster and acting as the central information clearinghouse. I just heard County Supervisor Gore speak of the hazard the rain later this week will bring. Only a half inch, but enough to pool the incinerated toxins. They recommend using clean room techniques when entering buildings from the outdoors. And, if this winter brings heavy rains, the denuded hill and mountainside soils will wash down into the valleys, causing more devastation. We NorCal residents are neither Chicken Littles, nor are we snowflakes. We care about the environment and each other.

  43. Your readers aren't understanding why the California fires are different. The scope of the fires is huge: 217,000 acres, 41 people have died so far, 5,700 structures have burned, and the fires rage on. A new one started today. Every story seems to be a kind of wrap-up instead of current news about a national emergency. The fires are still burning and air quality continues to deteriorate. What's in the polluted air blanketing the Bay Area is a serious problem for the millions who live here, and comparing it to a couple of buildings burning in a town shows how far out of touch your readers are. This is big news, bigger than salacious details of the Weinstein perversions, but the California fire emergency is not being given the importance it merits.

  44. Be sure that the President's crack investigative team is lead by the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. His denial of climate change will definitely be vindicated.