Toxic ash, debris from California wildfires pose risks during cleanup

This neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, is covered in ash and debris after it was destroyed by fire.

Story highlights

  • Building debris can be hazardous and toxins can seep into the soil
  • The goal is to have the cleanup effort completed by early 2018

(CNN)Homes leveled, cars reduced to their frames. Entire neighborhoods in California gone. Families left with nothing.

"All your life savings and work for all the years is gone," Penny Wright told CNN. "We lived here 10 years. I never thought that Santa Rosa would have a fire like this and we would lose everything."
    This is the aftermath of the October wildfires that burned more than 245,000 acres, destroyed an estimated 8,900 structures and killed 42 people, according to Cal Fire. The focus is now on cleanup of the resulting ash and debris -- both of which could pose risks to people and the environment.
    The debris includes household hazardous waste that California Department of Toxic Substances Control spokeswoman Abbott Dutton said can be batteries, paints, flammable liquids, asbestos siding and pipe insulation.
    Electronic waste such as computers and monitors also is hazardous, she said.
    Two women sort through the rubble of a property in Napa where an elderly couple died.
    Ash is another concern, as it "can contain elevated and potentially harmful levels of heavy metals," said Lance Klug, a spokesman for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).
    Klug said based on assessments of burned houses and structures from past wildfires, the heavy metals include antimony, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and zinc. Additionally, commonly used building materials found in older houses -- such as stucco, Sheetrock and joint compound, cement pipe and exterior home sliding -- may contain asbestos, Klug said.
    The ruins of houses destroyed by the Tubbs Fire are seen on October 14 in Santa Rosa.
    Wind and rain are two concerns when it comes to these toxins and the risks they pose to the environment, said Geoffrey Plumlee, associate director for environmental health at the US Geological Survey.
    He said if big rainstorms occur before the cleanup, then there's the potential for the toxins to flow into storm drain systems and end up in local rivers.
    Additionally, Plumlee said the dust material can easily get caught in the wind, something that is commonly seen after fires. This is a potential exposure pathway for toxins to reach people and organisms, he said.
    To make sure dust doesn't become airborne, Klug said crews water the ash and debris, as well as put tarps on trucks carrying the materials. The air in the region is monitored to measure the effectiveness of dust control, he added.

    Health warnings for residents

    Local officials in Santa Rosa and other northern California areas hit by the wildfires have been warning residents about the dangers and health risks of returning to their fire-damaged properties.
    "It is important to understand the risk to your safety and health even after the fire is out," Sonoma County, which includes Santa Rosa, advised residents.
    It urged people to "refrain from cleaning ash and fire debris until professional hazardous material cleanup services are secured," and to use an air-purifying respirator mask if exposed to dust or ash.
    Nearby Napa County even declared a local health emergency due to hazardous waste and materials after the fire.
    When it comes to disasters such as wildfires, every cleanup operation is different, and the magnitude of this effort will be much larger than previous ones, Klug said.
    "Every debris removal operation is unique and comes with its own set of challenges, including type of damage, terrain and accessibility," he said. "In addition to those factors, this cleanup effort is unique given the severe magnitude of the disaster and extent of the damage."