Sick in the ashes

Threats to public and environmental health and safety continue to persist in the wake of the most destructive wildfire in California’s history.

By | Michelle N. Meyers

Threats to public and environmental health and safety continue to persist in the wake of the most destructive wildfire in California’s history.

As part of an ongoing joint response to multiple wildfires in Northern California, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency begins what officials are referring to as the largest wildfire cleanup in California’s history.

Since Sunday, Oct. 8, at the peak of the wildfires there were 21 major wildfires that burned over 245,000 acres in total, forcing around 100,000 people to evacuate. While the damage assessment is still ongoing, so far the blazes have destroyed an estimated 8,700 structures and devastatingly taken the lives of 42 people.

The Tubbs Fire in Sonoma County alone broke the record as California’s most destructive wildfire in history. So far, the Tubbs Fire has scorched 36,807 acres, destroyed 5,300 structures, and taken 22 lives.

“It worried me, not knowing what was going to happen to my friends,” says Damian Jimenez, former Sonoma County resident and Communications Major at HSU. “Friends whose houses have been engulfed by the fires.”

“They lost a lot of family memories,” says Jimenez

In the last few weeks, cooler temperatures and higher humidity across Northern California have aided firefighters in their efforts. As of now, temperatures across the state remain warm and dry. Yet despite unfavorable conditions, all fires in Sonoma County are at least 92 percent contained according to Cal Fire.

While the dangers of a powerful active wildfire fire are beginning to pass, environmental and health concerns associated with the aftermath of a wildfire continue to threaten local communities and emergency personnel.

One of the main concerns for residents returning to a damaged or destroyed home is the presence of hazardous materials such as household hazardous waste or HHW. Household hazardous waste include, “leftover household products that can catch fire, react, or explode under certain circumstances, or that are corrosive or toxic,” said Michele Huitric, EPA Public Information Officer, in a press release. “Products such as paints, cleaners, oils, batteries, and pesticides can contain hazardous ingredients and require special handling and disposal.”

In order to ensure the safety of residents, local authorities continue to warn residents returning to what is left of their homes to beware of these possible hazards. Residents are required to read and sign a form that is intended to ensure that the homeowner acknowledges these dangers before entering the property. That form is called a Debris Removal Right-of-Entry Permit and can be found on the County of Sonoma website. In addition, the State of California has declared a state of emergency in the area.

Cleanup efforts of hazardous and non-hazardous materials are also now underway in what is being referred to as the largest wildfire cleanup in California’s history.

The EPA, in coordination with representatives from Sonoma and Napa Counties and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its state and local partners began conducting surveys to identify the locations of household hazardous waste and other hazardous materials as of Oct. 25. These surveys are being conducted on residential properties in the neighborhoods of Coffey Park in Santa Rosa as well as Soda Canyon and Silverado in Napa.

Once these properties are surveyed, collection teams will begin the safe removal, transport, and disposal of hazardous and nonhazardous materials.

Wildfire cleanup efforts also include the removal of contaminated soil and stabilization of the creek bed according to the EPA.

In addition, as part of the EPA’s response effort, they are “working with California and tribal governments to track the status of more than 150 public drinking water systems, some of which have been damaged, destroyed or otherwise affected by the fires,” says Huitric.

The extensive cooperative effort is intended to reduce potential threats to public health and safety.

Officials are aiming to, “Have all that damage debris cleaned up by early 2018,” says Kathleen Hie, Cal Fire Information Officer.

“We’re in the rebuilding stages,” says Jimenez. “I think caring for one another is really important right now.”




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