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Asbestos, Heavy Metals, Lead. Long After a Wildfire, Toxic Substances Linger.

As fires burn populated areas, clean-up for residents can present its own set of health risks.

Damage from the Camp Fire, as seen here in Paradise, California, in Dec. 2018, after the fire killed more than 80 people and destroyed most of the Northern California town. Long after they've been extinguished, wildfires can leave behind a toxic mix of chemicals, from melted furniture to incinerated cleaning products to hollowed-out vehicles. (Andrew MacCalla/Direct Relief)
Damage from the Camp Fire, as seen here in Paradise, California, in Dec. 2018, after the fire killed more than 80 people and destroyed most of the Northern California town. Long after they've been extinguished, wildfires can leave behind a toxic mix of chemicals, from melted furniture to incinerated cleaning products to hollowed-out vehicles. (Andrew MacCalla/Direct Relief)

After an unprecedented fire season in which at least 39 million acres were burned, Australian communities, emergency services, and public health authorities have shifted their attention from the acute problems of active fires to those dangers which have been left behind, both seen and unseen.

Public health authorities in Australia have been cautioning civilians who are returning to their homes about falling branches, sharp and smoldering objects hidden in rubble, and injured animals.

In addition, asbestos, fire-damaged septic systems, and chemically treated wood have been singled out for their potential negative health impacts. Ash from CCA-treated wood is comprised of as much as 10 percent arsenic, chromium and copper. According to South Australia Health, a government department, ingesting as little as “a few grams” can be harmful.

For both asbestos and septic tanks, the government recommends that civilians contact professionals and, for asbestos jobs over 10 square meters, professionals are required.

For anyone returning, officials stress the importance of taking basic steps for protection from physical danger.

“They need to be prepped with the right personal protection equipment, including gloves and goggles,” said Michaela Hobby, director of health protection for South Australia Health, a government department.

Invisible Hazards, Significant Risk

With wildfire recovery efforts, specific guidance is dependent on where the fire took place, since the materials present and other features will vary. The U.S. based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its occupational safety agency, NIOSH, researched the 2018 Carr Fire in Northern California for workplace-related safety issues.

The report found that clean-up workers were overexposed to crystalline silica. Each worker tested also had lead on their hands. Asbestos was not detected in the air during that particular study.

Some general takeaways also came forth, such as the importance of wearing relevant protective gear, and putting it on correctly, as well as hand washing before eating.

However, for other lurking dangers, Hobby said, the official guidance is less clear.

“They also should prepare for the emotional trauma,” Hobby said. “There is a grief process that people can go through, so it’s important to be taking care of yourself and seeking the support of friends and family and mental health providers.”

“It is recognized that the trauma from bushfires can come quite a way down the track,” Hobby said.

This learning has come from experience in Australia, which has long dealt with deadly bushfires. Among the worst were the Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people in 2009. Many survivors, especially in more rural or isolated areas, faced hardships for days, and in some cases even weeks, after the fires.

“There were few people around, no visitors, and no fresh food until it was brought in by the hearse on the following Tuesday. There were also dead bodies still in their homes, their relatives not allowed to return,” Judy Frazer-Jans, from Marysville, Australia, told the Victorian Royal Bushfire Royal Commission.

Though properties have been repaired, and over a decade has passed, scars still from linger from that event.

“While people have generally gotten on with their lives since the devastating 2009 Black Saturday fires, from my conversations with those in the community that were directly impacted, the trauma is still there for many of them,” said Gordon Willcock, deputy director of emergency response at Direct Relief, who is based in Australia.

“And it is revisited every fire season as they prepare their fire plans and monitor their alert apps on high-fire danger days,” he said.

Crews work to clean-up debris in the fire-impacted community of Buxton, Australia, in January. The community lost several dozen homes during the recent blazes, and recovery work continues. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)
Crews work to clean-up debris in the fire-impacted community of Buxton, Australia, in January. The community lost several dozen homes during the recent blazes, and recovery work continues. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

In South Australia, as recovery efforts are ongoing, the government is focused on helping its residents prepare for the next fire.

“Preparedness will be the number one focus for communities across Australia in bushfire-prone areas,” Hobby said.

“That’s where we are focusing our resources, to equip our communities as well as possible during those high-risk periods,” she said.

Hobby said the specific nature of these preparations will vary by locality.

As has been the case throughout Australia’s history, the vast majority of firefighting was done by volunteers. Hobby said she’s seen that mentality extend into the recovery and preparation phases as well.

“The spirit of volunteerism, neighbors looking out for neighbors, that’s something that has been tremendous, and I think people perhaps are focusing on preparing more than they have,” she said.

Though property recovery estimates vary throughout the country, the government of the most populous state, New South Wales, reports on its site that it expects most residential properties in non-remote areas to be “substantially cleared” by the end of June.

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