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Government Guidance for Safe Fire Ash Cleanup

Destructive and deadly fires ravage California each year, and after-the-fire cleanup efforts aren’t easy either.

Before cleanup operations begin, local and state government emergency policies and guidelines need to be checked for local restrictions, as well as guidance when it comes to disposal of debris, wastewater or the safety of cleanup workers. These also apply to ash, soot and fire-decomposition products, known to cause irritation and other respiratory health problems.

So, what are the recommended safety procedures when cleaning fire ash?

Here are a few recommendations from the California Air Resources Board.

Crews trained in hazardous waste operations and emergency response should use safely load, transport and dispose of the ash and debris applying dust control and monitoring methods.

The ash deposited by forest fires is relatively safe, non-toxic, however, any ash will contain small amounts of cancer-causing chemicals or harmful levels of heavy metals. Furthermore, fire ash may be irritating to the skin, especially to those with sensitive skin. If the ash is inhaled, it can irritate the nose and throat, and can trigger asthmatic attacks in people who already have asthma.

Therefore, the following guidance is recommended for the prevention of possible health problems:

–             Wear gloves, long sleeved shirts and long pants to avoid direct skin contact.

Read our article on types of personal protective equipment (PPE) for wildfire disaster cleanup.

–             If you do get ash on your skin, wash it off as soon as possible.

–             If you are working around vegetable gardens or fruit trees, wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.

–             Shop vacuums and other common vacuum cleaners do not filter out small particles, but rather blow such particles out the exhaust into the air where they can be inhaled. HEPA filter vacuums should be used, if available.

–             Don’t ignore respiratory protection.

Well-fitting dust masks will provide some protection during cleanup. An N95 or P100 respirator will be more effective than dust or surgical masks in blocking particles from ash. In general, many ash particles are larger than those found in smoke; thus, wearing a dust mask can significantly reduce (but not eliminate) the number of particles inhaled.

–             People suffering from heart or lung disease should consult their physician before using a mask during post-fire cleanup.

–             Gentle sweeping of indoor and outdoor hard surfaces, followed by wet mopping, is recommended. A damp cloth or wet mop may be all that is needed on lightly dusted areas.

–             The Regional Water Control Quality Board has asked the public to avoid washing ash into storm drains whenever possible.

–             Dispose of collected ash in the regular trash. Ash may be stored in plastic bags or other containers that will prevent it from being disturbed.

Ash removal from burned structures

Ash and debris inside burned structures may contain more toxic substances than forest fire ash because of the synthetic materials buildings are made of. Older buildings may contain asbestos and lead. Therefore, a more cautious approach should be taken in the removal of ash and other debris from inside burned structures.

Permits and appropriate PPE is required to remove asbestos.

Smoke and carbon monoxide

Cleanup activities may involve the use of gasoline- or diesel-powered pumps, generators, and pressure washers. Because these devices release carbon monoxide — a deadly, colorless, odorless gas — it is recommended to operate all gasoline-powered devices outdoors.

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Alexandra Serban
Content Marketing Specialist
Alexandra Serban is the Content Marketing Specialist for Honeywell Industrial Safety. A seasoned writer and digital storyteller, she is learning and reporting on industrial safety news, trends and products.