As Colorado battles the largest fire in state history and California wildfires continue to rage, today’s APHA Annual Meeting session on protecting people in the aftermath could not have been more timely. 

firefighter with fire in backgroundPresenters at “After the Wildfire: How Do We Best Protect Occupational and Public Health During Cleanup?” spoke about the ways California is creating a model that other states can follow when it comes to wildfire response. As the only state that mandates cleanup activities following wildfires, California agencies have successfully partnered to safely rebuild communities. 

The session highlighted the experiences of California state employees who were deployed to work on wildfire recovery after the Camp and Woolsey wildfires of 2018. Those fires set California ablaze within eight hours of each other, destroying thousands of structures and taking more than 80 lives.

“We must be proactive looking after the survivors, community and the workforce,” said Lisa Garner, of the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery.  She described the state’s cleanup process, debris removal precautions and inspection requirements, emphasizing the importance of community involvement. 

Presenters also highlighted the importance of closely monitoring environmental factors, such as air and water quality, to determine if a community is safe enough for people to return. 

“It’s understandable that people who move back into a fire-impacted area would have concerns about...what’s in the air that they’re breathing,” said Shelly DuTeaux, from the California EPA  Department of Pesticide Regulation. DuTeaux’s department conducts air monitoring and sampling around debris removal activity to ensure the environment is free from damaging chemicals. 

Speaker Yvonne Hearney, of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, also pointed out the emerging concern of benzene contamination, a hazardous chemical that can contaminate drinking water via the burning of plastic water pipes. Hearney warned that this type of contamination is likely to occur again, but maintained hope that wildfire pollution “is something that is overcomable with time.”

As wildfires become more frequent, presenters said we can learn from California’s response by becoming more aware of unsuspecting hazards, closely monitoring environmental factors and effectively engaging the community. 

Photo by Kevin Lendio, courtesy iStockphoto