Cory Handley, CSP
Risk Management Consultant
Recent wildfires throughout California have deposited large amounts of ash on indoor and outdoor surfaces in areas near the fires. The ash deposited by forest fires is relatively nontoxic and similar to ash that might be found in your fireplace. However, any ash will contain small amounts of cancer-causing chemicals. In addition, fire ash may be irritating to the skin, especially to those with sensitive skin. If the ash is breathed, it can be irritating to the nose and throat and may cause coughing. Exposure to ash in the air might trigger asthmatic attacks in people who already have asthma.
Ash and debris inside burned structures may contain more toxic substances than forest fire ash because of the many synthetic and other materials present in buildings. Older buildings in particular may contain asbestos and lead. A more cautious approach should be taken in the removal of ash and other debris from inside burned structures.
To help protect yourself and avoid possible health problems, consider the following recommendations.
- Wear leather gloves and heavy thick-soled shoes to protect your hands and feet.
- Use caution when entering burned areas. Hazards may still exist, including hot spots that can ignite or trees that can fall without warning.
- Check the attic. If you see smoke or fire, get out of the house and call 911.
- If you have a safe or strong box, do not try to open it. It can hold intense heat for several hours. If the door is opened before the box has cooled, the contents could burst into flames.
- Discard food exposed to heat, smoke, or soot. When it doubt, throw it out.
- Do not drink, brush teeth, prepare food, or wash/bathe in water until officials indicate the water source is safe.
- Do not allow children to play in the ash.
- Wash ash off children’s toys before children play with them.
- Clean ash off house pets.
- Wear gloves, long sleeved shirts, and long pants and avoid skin contact.
- If you get ash on your skin, wash it off as soon as possible.
- If you have a vegetable garden or fruit trees, wash the fruit or vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
- Avoid getting ash into the air as much as possible. Do not use leaf blowers or take other actions that will put ash into the air.
- Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA-filter.
- Well-fitting dust masks may provide some protection during cleanup. A mask rated N-95 or P-100 will be more effective than simpler dust or surgical masks in blocking particles from ash.
- Persons with heart or lung disease should consult their physician before using a mask during post-fire cleanup.
- Gently sweep hard surfaces followed by wet mopping.
- Use a damp cloth or wet mop on lightly dusted areas.
- Avoid washing ash into storm drains.
- Use as little water as possible when wetting down ash.
- Ash may be stored in plastic bags or other containers that will prevent it from being disturbed.
- Collected ash may be disposed of in the regular trash.
You may be at an even greater risk of flooding due to recent wildfires that have burned across the region. Large-scale wildfires dramatically alter the terrain and ground conditions. Normally, vegetation absorbs rainfall, reducing runoff. Wildfires leave the ground charred, barren, and unable to absorb water, creating conditions ripe for flash flooding and mudflow. Flood risk remains significantly higher until vegetation is restored, up to 5 years after a wildfire.
To help prepare for a flooding event, consider the following recommendations:
- Familiarize yourself with the landscape and its normal drainage channels. Know where your home or property is situated with respect to natural drainage channels. Find out if any floods or landslides have occurred in the area in the past.
- Develop your own emergency plans for your family, property and/or business. Post-wildfire hazard events can occur with little advance warning, so it’s important to be prepared.
- Contact local authorities to learn about any emergency response and evacuation plans for your area. Attend any meetings that are held to inform the public of local risks.
- Consider purchasing flood insurance.