Healing from the Fires
This article originally appeared in The Next STEP
newsletter. This page also includes additional resources,
events, and information sources.
article from The Next STEP newsletter (Jan/Feb 2018)
(Click to read and forward the original formatted PDF file
and full issue)
Next STEP is a bi-monthly newsletter educating people
about toxics and alternatives. "It's your handy guide to
You can also see our prior article on toxics and the fires
in the Nov/Dec issue. (Text
version or PDF
As we went to press with our last newsletter, the North Bay
fires were still burning. So I wrote then about the high level
of toxics that can be released and spread broadly in such
events, and how we might protect ourselves from that. I also
noted that release during disasters is just another cost of
toxics, and another reason to minimize our use of them.
Healing from the Fires
Thankfully, local folks have sought to address the toxics
released by these fires. However, the scale of this challenge
can be daunting. Thus, community support and creativity will
be crucial to ensure that we protect the well-being of our
shared environment and water supplies.
So I’ll summarize some key information here. I’ve also put
this article plus citations, action information, and resources
at [this link; see added info below].
The Toxic Challenges
■ The size of the fires. It can be hard for us
even to comprehend how much these fires have damaged. In
Sonoma County alone, they burned 137 square miles and
destroyed 6,600 structures, mostly homes. The key Tubbs fire
is considered the most destructive wildfire in California
history. The current cleanup is expected to be the largest in
Officials recently estimated that 200 tons of ash and debris
will be removed from each residential lot, with a projected
total of about one million tons. That’s three times our total
municipal solid waste for all of 2016!
■ The scale of the toxic debris. These fires also left
an unprecedented level of hazardous materials behind. Richard
Halsey, Director of the California Chaparral Institute, says,
“it’s almost like a toxic waste dump.”
The knee-deep ash and detritus from burned-out homes and cars
can contain a wide range of hazardous materials, including:
asbestos; heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, aluminum, and
chromium; and burned plastics, paint, solvents, pesticides,
and rubber. All of these can pose serious threats to people
and wildlife now and long into the future.
Jeremiah Puget, who works for the North Coast Regional Water
Quality Control Board, says, “We have never encountered
anything quite like this. The scope of this is astounding.”
■ Traveling ash. The fires’ toxic ash impacted people
and places far beyond the burn areas — landing in San
Francisco and beyond! This caused air quality warnings, event
cancellations, and the risk of health problems such as
stinging eyes, sore throats, respiratory illness, and heart
attacks. Its tiny particles can go deep into our lungs and
even bloodstreams. Plus it can harm ocean chemistry and marine
life. Even now, the high quantities of ash can continue to
travel in air, on shoes and cars, etc.
■ The risk of rain. As the fires raged, we prayed for
rain to damp them down and nourish the dry land. We were
grateful when it arrived.
Still, rain also brought a new threat. The burned ground was
now vulnerable to erosion, with less plant life, topsoil, and
other materials to hold back water and stabilize hillsides.
Plus the water could carry ash and sediment throughout the
Russian River watershed and to the San Francisco Bay, harming
water quality and ecosystems along the way.
Wildlife such as crawfish and river otters are often
vulnerable to lower levels of toxics than us. Plus burdens
would be added to already-threatened fish, such as steelhead
trout, chinook salmon, and coho salmon.
1) Removing toxic materials. Because of the enormous
scale of the fires, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
is currently managing the first cleanup phase for the
thousands of fire-scorched properties. This includes removing
high quantities of toxic items, such as batteries, paint,
solvents, flammable liquids, electronic waste, and any
materials containing asbestos.
In the second cleanup phase for these properties, contractors
are gathering up the ash, concrete, metal, and contaminated
But large amounts of toxic ash have gone beyond these burn
sites, so we need to ensure that toxic materials are safely
2) Keeping materials out of our watersheds. As it
became clear that protecting the waterways from contamination
was a key goal, various agencies, groups, and volunteers
installed over 30 miles of erosion-control wattles (skinny
straw-filled bags) and tens of thousands of gravel bags. Folks
are also seeking to stabilize soil with plantings.
3) Creating enhanced wattles. Community members also
collaboratively developed the idea of adding bioremediation
materials to wattles, and helped create and install them.
Designed by Sonoma Compost’s Will Bakx, and made and donated
by West Marin Compost, these contain compost, bioremediation
bacteria, and inoculated fungi substrate (mushrooms). The
goals are to break down hydrocarbons, take up toxics, and
capture heavy metals.
Chris Brokate, Founder and Executive Director of the nonprofit
Clean River Alliance, who helped roll these out, says,
“They’ve never been put out for fire runoff, so this is
4) Continuing to protect our water and air quality.
Brokate checked the wattles after the first rain, and was
delighted to see debris and oily water on one side, and clear
water coming out the other side. He says, “It felt like the
stuff that we did the day before really made a difference.” It
will take longer to see how the remediation aspect works.
North Coast water regulators also report that samples from a
limited number of test sites have so far tested within the
However, this is just the start, and long-term monitoring and
remediation are needed. Key to that will be funding and
Even with the fires’ grief and challenges, people are
finding ways forward and moments of encouragement and hope.
Green sprouts, literally.
I hope that we all will find ways to be part of the healing.
Maybe we can even create something better than before, as we
learn from the experience and receive the wisdom of nature
along the way.
~ Patricia Dines
There are lots of resources to support our community's healing from
the fires -- both for those who want to receive and those who want
to offer help.
Here are just a few resources related to the main topic of this
* Natural Remedy
11/28/17 Read more about the enhanced wattles and bioremediation
* Bioremediation —Cleaning Up Toxins After the Fires, By Will
12/29/17 More about the bioremediation project described in this
article, by one of the project creators.
* Fire Remediation Action Coalition. Connect with others
exploring ecological bioremediation and restoration approaches.
* Mon. Jan. 22, 6 to 8pm, Talk/Forum, Rebuilding
in a Fire Ecology. United Methodist church, 1717
Yulupa, Santa Rosa CA. "Join us for an evening of information
sharing to address the daunting questions about rebuilding in a fire
ecology and engaging support for a resilient recovery. * How do we
plan thoughtfully and creatively to live cooperatively in a fire
ecology? * What resources exist to help us? * How can we learn from
our past? • Free refreshments ª Jointly organized by: Community
Action Coalition of Sonoma County * Peace & Justice Center of
Sonoma County * Green Party of Sonoma County * Social Concerns Task
Force of Christ Church United Methodist • For more information call
Julie Combs, Santa Rosa City Councilmember – on the role of local
Dan Wade, Staff Attorney for United Policyholders – on navigating
Laura Neish, 350 Sonoma County – on support for fire victims for
Ray Krauss, former County Planner – on historical planning for fire
in Sonoma County
Teri Shore, Greenbelt Alliance – on a resilient rebuild &
recovery that reduces fire risk, and on ideal locations for new
* Thurs. Feb 1, 6:30 to 8:30pm, Healing from
the Fires: Ecological & Firewise Perspectives. At the
Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, 900 Sanford Rd, Santa Rosa (just
east of Sebastopol on Occidental Road). Multifaceted program of
poetry, film, and scientific perspectives on fire ecology and being
firewise, with biologist, poet, and filmmaker Maya Khosla, $6-20
Pre-registration required: www.eventbrite.com/e/healing-from-the-october-fires-ecological-and-firewise-perspectives-tickets-41369755051
More information at: www.facebook.com/events/390432328059418
* Fri. Feb. 23, 10am to 7pm, Rebuild Green EXPO. Santa Rosa
Veterans Building, 1351 Maple Ave, Santa Rosa, California 95404/
FREE Event for the North Bay Fire Communities. Education,
information, and networking focused on resilient, affordable,
community-centered “green” rebuilding options for the communities
affected by the recent North Bay fires. Learn about energy-efficient
Zero Net Energy residences, financing green building, adding granny
units, 100% renewable electricity, fire-resistant construction,
sustainable materials, microgrids, electric vehicles, and more!
* I've been pleased to see the Press Democrat talking about
toxics and the fires.
This online search will get you the most current pieces, so that you
can find those of interest to you.
* Toxic Ashes and Charred Forests Threaten Water After
North Bay Fires
10/24/17 "The fires that burned wildlands and urban areas in
Northern California pose a threat to water quality, humans and
wildlife as crews work to contain unstable hillsides and keep toxic
debris from entering waterways."
* By a Landslide
12/5/2017 "Sonoma County to front cost of water gauges in hope FEMA
will reimburse. To address the threat of mudslides on fire-scorched
mountains in Sonoma County, the board of supervisors approved a
network of early warning rain and stream gauges."
I invite you to share your links on this topic with me, for
possible inclusion in this space. Email me at STEP [at]
healthyworld [dot] org.
ADDED SOURCES FOR ARTICLE
These links include additional
information about this overall topic.
Personal conversation with Will Bakx.
Information courtesy of:
"Information Empowering Action for a
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Page last updated 1/20/2018