The State Worker

Toxic residue from the fires: How California cleans up after a ‘firenado’

Somehow, a pair of potted plants looked almost untouched on the front porch of a home that had burned to ash and cinder.

That dissonant sight in Siskiyou County lingered with state environmental scientist Janine Brinkman weeks after she left California’s first big wildfire this year.

“It is overwhelming. It makes you think about what you have, and what everyone has lost,” she said.

Brinkman this week is taking in similar scenes as the state Department of Toxic Substances Control begins the early stages of the cleanup from the devastating fire that wiped out more than 1,000 homes in Redding last month.

The work, removing obvious hazardous waste like melted car batteries and jugs of chlorine, marks the first step in rebuilding after massive natural disasters. Later, Cal Recycle will come to haul away metal and ash.

It’s a job the state has been capable of carrying out since the Angora Fire in South Lake Tahoe 11 years ago, but one that it’s been undertaking more frequently since drought-weakened forests intensified California’s fire seasons.

The state scientists and Cal Recycle are called in when the governor declares an emergency after a large fire. Cal Recycle worked one fire in 2007, one in 2010 and one in 2014. Its crews were assigned to five fires in 2015, two in 2016 and four last year.

They’re already on two this year, the Klamathon Fire in Siskiyou County and Redding’s Carr Fire.

“It seems like it’s never-ending,” said Ivan Rodriguez, 54, a senior environmental scientist who has participated in fire cleanups since the Angora Fire.

“As many fires as I’ve been to, every time I come out and I see this it’s heartbreaking, it’s devastating for the community,” he added.

He and Brinkman this week patrolled charred Redding neighborhoods where houses had burned down to their foundations. Hulking remnants of garage doors jutted up from the ground alongside scraps of cars.

Technically, residents can’t begin rebuilding at least until the Department of Toxic Substances Control checks a property for hazardous waste. Some might opt out of Cal Recycle’s metal and ash removal if their insurance is lined up and they have contractors ready to go.

One resident got a jump-start on the cleanup, and had already piled up his scrap metal alongside two destroyed cars.

“People grieve in different ways. Some people need to keep busy to deal with their grief. Some people just want to get going, to take care of it. I understand. That’s probably what I’d want to do, too,” said Paul McCarty, a Shasta County environmental health specialists who accompanied the state crew.

At each house, a group of contractors donned protective gear with ventilated face masks and full-body suits before they stepped into the rubble.

First, they checked for gas leaks. Then, they searched for asbestos.

Last, they searched for electronics and household cleaning products, the kinds of materials that could leave unhealthy toxins in the air. They hurled melted computer circuits and batteries into thick drums.

The crews used white paint to show which properties they’d checked, setting up for the Cal Recycle teams that will soon follow. They cleared about 100 houses after two days of work, leaving more than 900 to go. Rodriguez said they’ll be in Redding about a month.

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Around the neighborhood, insurance agents visited homeowners to begin assessing damaged properties. The residents still seemed full of adrenaline from the fire, recounting their getaways from the fast-moving inferno.

They marveled at houses that appeared untouched, or pockets that somehow survived as the houses around them burned.

“It’s different to see what the fire attacks; there’s no rhyme or reason to it,” Brinkman said.

She joined the department last year after a career in the private sector as an environmental scientist. Both jobs called for her to assess hazards that might damage a property, like chemical leaks, but the scene after a fire looks very different to her.

She said she’s “retraining her brain” for the post-disaster work.

“I feel like I’m contributing and helping people move forward,” she said. “I feel like I’m part of the bigger recovery effort.”

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