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In the Wake of Wildfires

By Doug Parker, Executive Director


I was listening to the radio a few days ago, and a woman who lost her home to last year’s wildfires was giving advice to those who lost their homes this month in the Camp and Woolsey fires. Much of her advice was both uplifting and practical, reminding listeners who have lost their homes not to be overwhelmed by the numbers of things to do, the reams of paperwork, or the tedious task of redeveloping the essential records necessary to rebuild one’s life.

One piece of advice made me cringe, however. She told listeners of the emotional value of going back to the ruins of their homes and sifting through the ashes for surviving bits and pieces of their pre-fire material lives.

I could imagine the cloud of respirable particulates, heavy metals, and asbestos that her comments might put into suspension. She didn't hear me as I yelled at the radio, in full-on health and safety nerd mode, imploring that she tell listeners about the toxic materials in house fire ash and debris, and that if they must do their own cleanup or memento search to wear full skin, eye, and respiratory protection.

There is a growing understanding of the adverse health effects of California wildfires when it comes to wildfire smoke. There is an increasingly intense public demand that California do more to protect the public when the air quality reaches unhealthy levels. I’m pleased to see that Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, who Worksafe honored as a 2018 Health and Safety Hero, is stepping forward to draft a bill to better protect workers from wildfire smoke.

But with well over 10,000 structures burned in California in just the last month and wildfire season hopefully coming to a close, the next and most urgent hazards that workers and the public will face will be during the cleanup. California needs to undertake a major effort to make sure the public knows that the dangers from wildfire do not end when the flames and smoke are gone, and that employers understand their obligation to assess workplace hazards, including cleanup sites, and adequately protect workers from exposure to toxic substances.