Wildfire Recovery Information for Homeowners Affected by Wildfires
As homeowners begin the rebuilding process, DEQ asks them to consider the following environmental and public health issues that are sometimes overlooked and can cause future problems. Identifying these issues while in the clean-up phase is often the most cost-effective method of handling post-fire tasks. Homeowners can contact their DEQ regional office, local health district, or county for additional assistance. County resources, such as disaster services, are typically the local points of contact during a wildfire event.
This information is meant to help people affected by wildfires. It is not meant to be an all-inclusive guide to fire recovery but a quick reference to the proper contacts and resources for the most pressing issues related to the protection of public health and the environment.
Airborne Dust and Air Quality
The wildfire aftermath may contribute to poor air quality in the area, especially during high winds.
When doing clean-up work, consider (at least initially) using a half-face respirator with particulate filters, or a NIOSH certified particulate respirator (mask) with either N95 or P100 printed on it that has two straps that go around the head. Local hardware stores should have these types of masks available for purchase at minimal cost. Without a particulate respirator (mask), fine particles of ash and other fire debris can reach the lower part of the lungs and may cause long-term respiratory issues. Choose a particulate respirator (mask) size that will fit over your nose and under your chin. It should seal tightly to your face. Do not use bandanas (wet or dry), paper or surgical masks, or tissues held over the mouth and nose. These will not protect the lungs.
If a building is influenced by airborne dust from the fire and is primarily downwind of the burned area, keep windows closed and operate filtered air conditioning units with the fresh air intake closed. High-efficiency air conditioner filters will capture the most particles, so use HEPA filters if possible. Be sure to clean or replace the filter more often in smoky or dusty conditions.
Even with regular filter changes, the air conditioner's evaporator coil and condenser coil will collect dirt. Outdoor condenser coils can also become very dirty if the outdoor environment is dusty or smoky or if there is foliage nearby. Clean coils as necessary. Avoid doing anything that stirs up ash, including dry sweeping or using leaf blowers. Do not use a lot of water when cleaning and don’t wash ash into storm drains.
In addition to AC filters, room sized HEPA filtering units can clean indoor air. These are usually available at local hardware stores.
Using a water mist will reduce exposure to small particulate matter and help anchor existing dust.
Please do not burn any waste materials. Doing so will cause unnecessary smoke and, depending on what is burned, might leave hazardous substances in the soils.
Household Hazardous Waste and Debris
Hazardous material left on-site after a fire can present conditions harmful to people, wildlife, and the environment. Proper cleanup can reduce the impact on public health and the environment. Please do not bury or burn any debris or other waste. Materials left behind after a fire can include the following:
- Paint and solvent cans
- Gas cans
- Used oil containers
- Refrigerators with Freon
Most of these materials can be handled safely by the local municipal solid waste landfill if you wish to discard them. To facilitate disposal, DEQ generally recommends temporarily segregating items by placing them in a secure (bermed and tarped) area on your property to prevent leaching and run-off prior to sending them to the local municipal solid waste landfill. For more information about landfill disposal, contact your local municipal solid waste landfill. Keep the following guidelines in mind:
- If leaking containers are encountered, call the fire department/haz mat team (911) for assistance.
- Since some items may need assessed on a case-by-case basis (such as equipment containing mercury), please call the DEQ regional office for assistance.
- Counties normally require a demolition permit for any activity related to building demolition, debris removal, or grading. However, for those affected by wildfires, check with the county to determine if permit fees and/or landfill fees will be waived.
- In addition to removing household hazardous materials, try to segregate recyclable materials as much as possible (e.g., metals and plastics) to reduce the volume of disposed materials and save cost. Also, separating concrete debris from other material (such as wood) helps the landfill direct the items to the proper locations at the facility and saves space.
- Please refrain from burying debris and other waste.
- Ash from burned wooden decks, fences, and retaining walls and partially burned wooden decks, fences, and retaining walls that were treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA), which was formerly used because it prevents dry rot and insect damage, may contain high amounts of arsenic. Do not remove the ash or wood that may have been treated with CCA before contacting the DEQ regional office or local health district.
- Red fire retardant is not hazardous and can be safely washed off!
- Refrigerators and other Freon-containing devices can be disposed of as solid waste once all of the Freon is removed from the device. Certified refrigeration removal businesses are listed in the phone book.
- Ammunition: Please do not move it! Unexploded ammunition exposed to fire can be very volatile. Call the sheriff's office (911) to arrange for emergency disposal.
- Asbestos: Homes manufactured prior to 1980 may contain asbestos in the form of insulation, tile, mastics, and roofing compound. After a fire, asbestos fibers can remain in debris. More importantly, working with asbestos-containing debris requires some safety precautions, such as using a half-face respirator with particulate filters or a NIOSH certified particulate respirator (mask) with either N95 or P100 printed on it that has two straps that go around the head and spraying the material with water as it is excavated and handled to reduce dust generation. Residential asbestos debris can, however, be disposed of by coordinating with the local municipal solid waste landfill.
- Mold: Flood and water damage after wildfires can contribute to mold growth. Make sure mold-contaminated buildings are remediated safely. Find more information in this OSHA fact sheet.
- Businesses and commercial operations with hazardous waste or other special wastes are requested to call the DEQ regional office and speak with DEQ staff about proper waste identification and waste disposal.
Domestic Livestock and Wildlife
Domestic livestock that perish in a fire should be processed by a rendering plant licensed through the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. A list of licensed plants is available on the Idaho State Department of Agriculture's website.
Wildlife that perished in a fire is usually best left in the wild, unless it is causing a nuisance. For more information, contact the appropriate Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional office.
Drinking Water Well Protection
After a fire, household drinking water systems may need to be assessed for damage. Residents should check the integrity of the system and consider disinfecting the system if it was depressurized. The DEQ regional office and local health district can assist in assessing drinking water well systems or provide guidance and help for testing the quality of the drinking water through a local laboratory.
The DEQ regional office and local health district can also assist the operator of a community drinking water system in assessing the integrity of the drinking water system prior to restarting it.
Fuel, Oil, and Propane Storage Tanks
DEQ recommends that any underground storage tanks (USTs), above ground storage tanks, and propane tanks be inspected prior to reuse. Any type of tank could have been damaged during the fire or firefighting efforts. For UST removal, please contact the DEQ regional office. UST service providers are listed in the Underground Storage Tank Service Provider Directory.
Building Permits and Property Assessment
To better plan for property cleanup, rebuilding, and possible future issues, mark the location of the following:
- Septic tank and septic field
- Any underground storage tanks or fuel oil tanks
- Any private wells, including at least a 50-foot buffer area
- Any storage shed that may have residue from previously stored chemicals
Check with the local land use and building entity about any necessary permits/notifications required for demolition and rebuilding.
Soil Erosion and Potential Soil Contamination Issues
When performing cleanup and other recovery efforts, please be conscious of the erosion potential that may occur during the next several rainstorm events. Uncontrolled runoff may dramatically affect downstream neighbors, roadways, storm drains, creeks, etc.
Make sure culverts are clean and free of debris so that drainages are not impeded. The local highway district or county can provide information and assistance to assess erosion issues related to road access and culverts.
Consult the local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) or soil and water conservation district for assistance with revegetation and/or methods to prevent erosion. “Wildfire Recovery Tips for Idaho,” published by the NRCS, includes a wealth of information about preventing soil erosion (link to right).
For questions about possible soil contamination, call the appropriate DEQ regional office.
The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) storm water program requires those engaged in clearing, grading, and excavating activities that disturb 1 acre or more, including smaller sites in a larger common plan of development or sale, to obtain coverage under the Construction Stormwater General Permit (CGP) for potential stormwater discharges. There are exceptions from this requirement when dealing with an emergency, but when homeowners are rebuilding, they should follow these requirements. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the NPDES permitting authority in Idaho. For more information, see EPA’s Construction General Permit webpage or contact EPA at (206) 553-1772.
While some floods develop over time, flash floods—particularly common after wildfires—can occur within minutes after the onset of a rainstorm. Large-scale wildfires dramatically alter the terrain and ground conditions. Normally, vegetation absorbs rainfall, reducing runoff. However, wildfires leave the ground charred, barren, and unable to absorb water, creating conditions that promote flash flooding and mudflow. Flood risk remains significantly higher until vegetation is restored, which may take years.
Flooding after fire is often more severe since debris and ash left from the fire can form mudflows. As precipitation moves across charred ground, it can also pick up soil and sediment to be carried downstream. This increases flood damage risk and may cause significant damage. For information about flooding and its effect on drinking water resources, see links to the right for DEQ guidance.