October has been a harrowing month for the state of California due to the numerous wildfires that affected many nearby towns and residents. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned, including homes, schools, businesses, and more. Firefighting crews are still working to contain the fires in some areas, but containment is now close to one hundred percent. California residents and other government organizations are now starting the cleanup process with high hopes of rebuilding and maintaining public health and safety.
EPA Will Help Remove Hazardous Waste
An executive order issued by Governor Jerry Brown on October 21, which stated that debris from the fire was “filled with dangerous toxins including heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and lethal asbestos and must be removed cautiously and expeditiously.” The executive order also allowed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assist the State of California with the removal of any visible hazardous waste materials. According to Occupational Health & Safety Magazine, this includes debris such as:
- Flammable liquids
- Asbestos siding
- Pipe insulation
Residents are encouraged to avoid dust and debris at all costs while certified professionals handle the removal process. If avoiding it is not an option, an air-purifying respirator mask should be worn.
Ensuring Residents Have Safe Drinking Water
Some affected residents have received official notices from their counties regarding the safety of their drinking water. At this time, the majority of California’s water is safe for consumption. However, a few areas have received Boil Water notices (meaning boil the water first before drinking), and one small area was issued with a Do Not Drink Water notice, which has now been lifted.
The United States Geological Survey is a government agency responsible for monitoring water quality affected by fires. The agency recently published a study in 2016 focused on water quality in Southern California. “Scientists discovered elevated levels of iron, lead, nickel, and zinc in the streams near Los Angeles, and traced the contaminants back to the 2009 Station Fire in the nearby Angeles National Forest.” These toxic elements exist in the ash and dust blown through the air during and after a fire. Once it enters water streams, it damages the natural ecosystem, killing fish and affecting other aquatic life. While it is somewhat normal to find trace amounts of lead and other elements in the water you drink and the food you eat, if significant amounts are ingested or absorbed through one’s skin, it can pose a serious health risk. If there is any doubt that your drinking water is safe, consume only filtered or bottled water.
The University of Wyoming conducted a study in 2012 on the effects of wildfires on water quality. The study mentions that “high intensity or large wildfires can result in significant increases in runoff and erosion, which can negatively impact water quality in the streams, rivers, and lakes within a watershed.” Preventative measures can be taken to reduce runoff and erosion, such as reseeding vegetation, placing barriers in runoff areas during heavy rains, silt fences, and more. The study indicates that it is particularly important to implement these practices during the first two years after the fire.
Monitoring Air Quality
There were fatalities and a few burn victims from the recent fires, but most of the patients seen at nearby hospitals were being treated for smoke inhalation. Symptoms of smoke inhalation include wheezing, coughing, a sore throat, and dry or sore eyes. This is mostly common for individuals who were actually inside or in close proximity to burning structures. However, individuals categorized as part of a sensitive group can also be more susceptible to exposure to smoke. These sensitive groups include children, the elderly (65 years or older), pregnant women, people with heart or lung diseases, people with diabetes. The few studies that have been conducted by researchers on affected areas showed the following results for these groups during a wildfire:
- Increase in asthma and other respiratory syndrome diagnoses
- Children without asthma were twice as likely to show symptoms of smoke inhalation
- Children with asthma were four times as likely to show symptoms of smoke inhalation
- Women that were pregnant during the wildfire later had babies with lower birth weights
Keep an eye on the air quality in your area and watch for symptoms of smoke inhalation. There are also preventative measures you can take, even in your own home, such as purchasing an air cleaner, avoiding frying or broiling food (can add to pollution levels), or wearing a dust mask.
Rebuilding the Community
We are dedicated to helping our fellow residents rebuild. Many of our employees are lending as much assistance as possible by volunteering, providing supplies, and opening their homes to displaced friends and family, and we as a firm are providing financial assistance to local fire relief efforts.
Many residents will be filing or have already filed insurance claims for their losses, which can prove to be an emotionally challenging task. We urge you to use caution before signing any legal contracts or insurance company releases and forms. In addition, residents should take advantage of any reliable resources being offered. These are just a few that come highly recommended:
- FEMA can provide disaster assistance for individuals in need. This can be done by registering your address at http://www.DisasterAssistance.gov or calling 1-800-621-3362.
- Greenspan Co. specializes in helping people through the claims process and maximizes their claims at a reasonable rate.
- The North Bay Fire Relief is accepting financial donations to assist fire victims and aid relief efforts. Victims can also apply for assistance through this program.
- United Policy Holders is a non-profit created to help disaster victims with insurance issues. The group already has a page devoted to North Bay Fires and are setting up a booth and doing a workshop in Santa Rosa on Wednesdays, November 1st and 15th from 6pm – 8pm.
- Fellow law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP has put together a comprehensive handbook of resources for individuals, families, and small businesses.
- LOCAL ASSISTANCE CENTERS:
- Sonoma County: Press Democrat building, 427 Mendocino Avenue, Santa Rosa. Open daily 9am – 7pm.
- Mendocino County: Mendocino College Gymnasium, 1000 Hensley Creek Road, Ukiah. Open daily 10am – 7pm through 10/31.
During this difficult time, our attorneys are offering free initial consultations to assess legal options and solutions for individuals going through the insurance claims process. This may include assistance in interpreting insurance contracts, providing advice on the scope of coverage and the process of obtaining coverage, helping negotiate insurance settlements if problems arise, identifying other reliable resources for you to use in the event we can’t answer your questions or provide enough assistance. Although an investigation is still continuing, we are also prepared to handle lawsuits against PG&E or others should that be the appropriate course of action. Please do not hesitate to contact us with your questions. It is our goal to do what we can to help our neighboring communities rebuild.