California Wildfires Create New Danger: Hazardous Debris


Statewide wildfires that scarred communities across Northern and Southern California now pose a new threat. As changing weather patterns and tireless work of more than 11,000 firefighters boost containment lines, communities devastated by the fires face potential health risks associated with the improper handling of fire debris.

The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) is warning returning residents against sweeping or sifting through ash or debris before cleanup by designated agencies begins. Exposure to ash, soot, and other hazardous material left in the wake of wildfires can cause serious and potentially deadly health problems.

The California Environmental Protection Agency notes that fire ash contains tiny particles of dust, dirt, and soot that can be inhaled if the ash becomes airborne. These particles could contain trace amounts of metals like lead, cadmium, nickel and arsenic; asbestos from older homes or other buildings; perfluorochemicals (from degradation of non-stick cookware, for example); flame retardants; and caustic materials. In addition to irritating your skin, nose, and throat, substances like asbestos, nickel, arsenic, and cadmium have been known to cause cancer.

Here are some helpful tips, courtesy of CalRecycle, to reduce risks.

  • Avoid any activity that disturbs the debris or kicks ash and associated chemicals into the air.
  • Those working directly with wildfire debris are advised to wear gloves, long shirts and pants, and other clothing to help prevent skin-to-skin contact.
  • It’s best to change shoes and clothing once off-site to avoid contaminating other areas.
  • Masks certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are also recommended when exposure to wildfire dust or ash can’t be avoided.

CalEPA recommends NIOSH-certified air-purifying respirator masks, which can be found at most hardware stores. A mask rated N-95 is much more effective than simpler dust or surgical masks in blocking particles from ash. Although smaller sized masks may appear to fit a child’s face, none of the manufacturers recommend their use for children. If children are in an area that warrants wearing a mask, they should be moved to an environment with cleaner air.


Additional resources





Editor’s note: Lance Klug of the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) contributed to this story.


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