Healing from the Fires

This page shows an article that originally appeared in The Next STEP newsletter -- plus additional resources, events, and information sources.

Original article from The Next STEP newsletter (Jan/Feb 2018)
(Click to read and forward the original formatted PDF file and full issue)

The Next STEP is a bi-monthly newsletter educating people about toxics and alternatives. "It's your handy guide to less-toxic living."
You can also see our prior article on toxics and the fires in the Nov/Dec issue. (Text version or PDF file.)

Healing from the Fires

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.

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 California history.

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 soil.

But large amounts of toxic ash have gone beyond these burn sites, so we need to ensure that toxic materials are safely removed county-wide.

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 potentially groundbreaking.”

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 expected range.

However, this is just the start, and long-term monitoring and remediation are needed. Key to that will be funding and community support.

Sprouting Anew

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 article.

* Natural Remedy
11/28/17 Read more about the enhanced wattles and bioremediation project.

* Bioremediation —Cleaning Up Toxins After the Fires, By Will Bakx
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 707-292-4233
Speakers include:
Julie Combs, Santa Rosa City Councilmember – on the role of local government
Dan Wade, Staff Attorney for United Policyholders – on navigating insurance claims
Laura Neish, 350 Sonoma County – on support for fire victims for rebuilding green
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 housing

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 sliding scale.
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.

These links include additional information about this overall topic.











Personal conversation with Will Bakx.

Information courtesy of:

"Information Empowering Action for a Healthier World"


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