Wildfires are tragic and highly destructive. If your home was damaged or destroyed, you are grieving but also starting to turn your mind towards rebuilding (although in some cases waiting for state funds and help is advisable). Rebuilding is expensive and challenging, but most people want to restore their home on the same land and restore their community, although this can take time, even years in some instances. There are some things that you need to consider, including environmental concerns not everyone thinks about.
Dust and Debris
After a wildfire, burned and semi-burned debris is a potential hazard on your property. Debris should be removed; if you are unable to do so right away because you are waiting on a contractor or state funds, you should dampen the debris so dust and volatiles don’t rise off it, affecting the local air quality.
When working around fire debris, take the following precautions:
- Wear PPE. This means sturdy footwear, ideally boots, eye protection, work gloves and an N95 or KN95 respirator. Cloth masks you might be using for protection from COVID-19 are not as useful against dust, while valved masks (which should not be used for virus prevention) are, in fact, ideal. If you can get your hands on disposable coveralls, do so. If not, then change clothes and shower right afterwards and wash soiled clothes immediately.
- Don’t use a leaf blower to clean up ash. This just moves it into the air where you can breathe it.
- Don’t allow children to help. Keep pets restrained and away from the debris, especially dogs (who might decide digging in the ash is fun).
- Any recovered items should be washed in water or, if that would damage them further, wiped with a damp cloth.
- Take regular breaks.
If you aren’t comfortable cleaning up dust and ash yourself, then you should hire somebody to do so.
Post Fire Inspection
If your home appears to be damaged by the fire, don’t enter right away. In some cases, building inspectors may have already checked and marked the building.
Leave children somewhere else when you first go back after evacuation; kids have been known to have nightmares when they see fire damage. Look first for structural damage. Don’t enter the house if there are:
- Loose power lines
- Damaged gas lines
- Cracks in your foundation
- Missing support beams
- A smell of gas
Get it inspected first. Otherwise, start documenting the damage right away using a camera or your phone. Turn off your propane tank system and don’t use it again until it’s been checked.
- Force open jammed doors. They may have become a support structure.
- Walk on sagging floors or under sagging ceilings.
- Climb damaged stairs.
- Use an open flame for any reason.
- Discard damaged goods without taking inventory. You’ll need that for your insurance.
- Tap loudly and often on the floor with a stick. Sometimes animals will enter a home to seek refuge, and this can include venomous snakes and spiders. Make sure that any critters know you are coming.
- Watch for smoke and embers.
- Open all the doors and windows if the weather is dry.
- Disconnect all appliances. Check them for water damage.
- Throw away any food, beverages, or medicine that are charred or were exposed to heat.
- Check your panel box for tripped breakers. If any breakers are tripped, call an electrician. Don’t stand in water to do so.
- Check your phones.
If in any doubt at all, get a building inspector to check your home. Don’t move back in until you have power, phone service, and are sure the building is stable.
Test For Asbestos
Older buildings, and even some newer ones, commonly have asbestos. Asbestos exposure is a concern when retrieving personal items and during clean-up. If you know your home contained asbestos, you should avoid exposure and make sure to wet debris thoroughly and then cover with plastic sheeting.
If you are unsure, then have a professional test for asbestos and then remove any contaminated material. There may be specific requirements in your jurisdiction for safe asbestos removal.
Test Your Soil
One thing to consider is the effect of wildfire on soil. Low intensity fires are generally beneficial to soil quality, but fire can also destroy nutrients in the top layer of the soil. Intense heat can cause soil oxidation, and can also make soil hydrophobic, that is to say it repels water. This is bad for runoff and erosion.
Contaminants can also end up in the soil, resulting in long term problems both for people living on the land (especially if you have to rebuild the house) and for vegetation. These contaminants, including metal, are not visible by looking at the soil, and there can be high levels of hazardous chemicals.
Soil testing is a good idea after a wildfire, especially for metals and other contaminants. CAM17 analysis is the best option after a wildfire. Soil testing can both identify contaminants so they can be removed and determine how the fire might have affected nutrients in the soil for replanting. If the fire has negatively impacted the soil, then you may want to add new topsoil or mulch to outdoor areas before trying to restore any landscaping or planting replacement trees. Soil with high levels of contaminants may need to be removed and replaced with fresh topsoil. If soil is hydrophobic, then soil engineering measures may be needed to prevent contamination from the fire from entering the local watershed and to reduce potential soil erosion.
This can also help guide replanting after a fire to reduce local soil erosion and potential subsidence. Soil testing is, thus, important even if your home itself was undamaged to help you restore your yard and immediate area in a way which prevents damage to buildings and driveways.
Plan to Rebuild
When you start planning to rebuild, consider how you can improve the fire safety of the building. If you can afford to upgrade to wildland building codes, do so even if not legally required to do so. Unfortunately, this can be expensive and may or may not be covered by your insurance. If building a new home, look into fire retardant siding such as cement-fiber. Metal roofs are also important; a metal roof prevents a flying, flaming branch from setting fire to your home.
You can also use the damage to help you put in some basic upgrades. Vents should be covered with metal mesh. Dual-paned windows with one pane of tempered glass are less likely to break in a fire. If rebuilding a deck, use ignition-resistant materials. Regularly cleaning your rain gutters or enclosing them can make a surprising difference.
Look at the landscaping around your home. You should have a fire buffer zone that gives you 100 feet of defensible space in two zones. Zone one is 30 feet. In that zone you should:
- Make sure to promptly remove all dead plants, dead and dry leaves, pine needles, etc.
- Remove any branches that hang over your roof or come within 10 feet of your chimney.
- Remove or prune back shrubs right outside windows.
- Remove vegetation and combustibles from around and especially under your deck.
- Keep swing sets and patio furniture away from trees and shrubs.
In the 100 foot zone make sure to:
- Keep grass mowed to 4 inches or lower.
- Keep trees and shrubs separated.
- Remove fallen leaves and branches above a depth of three inches.
Also plant native vegetation as much as possible as it tends to be more resistant in the event of a fire.
Recovering after a wildfire is traumatic and expensive, and a lot of people don’t think about the impact of fire on the soil under and around their home. As part of your wildfire recovery plan, call Essel Environmental Consulting to get soil testing done which can tell you what effect the fire might have had on your soil and what you need to do about it to ensure your safety and help your land recover.