Fire’s Complicated Aftermath

Janice_Kaspersen_Erosion_Control-Blog

Most of us following the news of the fires in northern California are aware of the immense amount of work that must follow after the flames are out. There’s an urgent need to stabilize the affected areas to prevent erosion and further damage to the region—everything from flooding to mudslides—but another step has to take place even before that, and it’s turning out to be a controversial one: debris removal.

EPA and state officials are concerned about hazardous waste left behind after the fires. As this article notes, crews are getting rid of the most obvious dangers first, such as propane tanks, but EPA is also going to be performing soil testing to ensure other, less apparent things like pesticides, herbicides, paint and other household chemicals, and asbestos are removed. Crews of thousands, some from the US Army Corps of Engineers—about five to seven people on each home site—will be working to clear debris and test the soil, and only then, in most cases, can erosion control measures be put in place.

Nothing is ever simple, though, and some homeowners are objecting to participating in the cleanup. Although the state’s Office of Emergency Services says the owners won’t be directly charged for the work, they will be required to hand over to the county any reimbursement they receive from their insurance companies specifically for debris removal, as well as any insurance money left over after they’ve rebuilt their homes. Property owners also need to sign right-of-entry forms to allow cleanup crews onto their lots. Arguments have broken out over what will and won’t be taken—for example, the government says concrete foundations affected by the wildfire are not safe to rebuild on and will be removed, but some homeowners want them left in place. Those who opt out of the government cleanup efforts can keep their foundations, but with about 6,700 homes lost, finding private contractors to do the work will be expensive, if the homeowners can find people to do the work at all. Each site will need a certificate showing no toxic materials are present before it will be eligible for local building permits.

One thing county, state, and federal officials agree on is that individual homeowners who opt out of the government cleanup efforts should not attempt the work themselves unless they’re well versed on how to avoid the health hazards inherent in shoveling ash and how to properly dispose of any potentially dangerous materials.

Have you been involved in post-fire erosion control efforts in any part of the US? If structures were involved, how difficult was the coordination with cleanup crews? EC_bug_web

Comments
  • Peter Higgins.

    We spent 2 years after the Black Saturday fires in Victoria Australia ,clearing rural properties , Erosion Control works and existing dam desilting as well as soil stabilisation projects , tunnel erosion was a big concern , soil composition changes after effects of extreme heat up to 2000 degrees had serious impacts in area where dispersive soils were present , landslip and sediment control had to be performed many times in some areas due to heavy rain events that followed the devistation , tree roots in existing dam wall led to many failures and it was a race to identify priorities that may impact properties further if dams failed, as for crews working in these areas it was also considered a risk that large deep holes were a health hazard , I could write for days on the risks and hazards we encountered , the time frame for getting in to help versus the prioritisation of real impacts down the track , just road re-openings were a engineering nightmare in some cases

    Reply
  • Robert Ingram.

    As Peter states, the effects of large fires goes on for years after they’re out. Not until ground cover becomes established again will the flooding diminish. The complexity of damage will vary with types of soil, severity of the burn, steepness of slope, type and amount of precipitation. In a rural setting damages can be limited to loss of soil and extreme gullying. When you add roads, utilities, homes, neighborhoods and businesses to the mix the damages to infrastructure can be extreme. To prevent or reduce damages, structures can be built. Sizing structures should be based on anticipated flows and be put in place as soon as possible. Understand that floods will come no matter what you do. Maintenance of trash racks, siltation basins, diversion berms, and other structures will be required for years. Counties, Cities and Town financial ability will be overwhelmed without State and Federal Assistance. Infrastructure must typically be reconstructed with improved conditions. Communities must be prepared to obligate maintenance funding and personnel to inspect and manage work above and beyond normal duties. Good luck!

    Reply

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