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Health and safety Issues Following a WildLand Fire

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) provides the following information and contacts that property owners may find helpful in assessing their property following a wildfire.

Contact

For additional information please contact:

Air Quality

Wood smoke from forest fires is made up of extremely small particles, which can be harmful to health. These small particles can be inhaled and may travel deep into the lungs where they are trapped. Air Quality advisories can be found on the DEC Air Quality Advisories/Episodes web page. http://dec.alaska.gov/Applications/Air/airtoolsweb/Advisories/ You can sign up to receive air quality alerts using DEC’s Air Online Services. http://dec.alaska.gov/Applications/Air/airtoolsweb/

Following a fire, there are also air quality concerns. The loss of vegetation in the fire area may cause more particulate matter to be lifted into the air from wind or human activities. Areas that are still smoldering will also have an increase in particulate matter in the air.

During clean-up, debris should be wetted down to minimize breathing of dust particles. For clean-up of general debris, filter masks and protective clothing are suggested to protect from exposure to dust and other particulates.

Both the very young and the elderly, and those with a history of respiratory illness or underlying heart conditions, are especially susceptible to the health risks caused by wildfire smoke or the poor air quality that may be found in burned areas. Those people should avoid physical exertion and minimize outdoor activities in areas with excessive levels of smoke, or in burned areas. They can minimize exposure by wearing a protective mask or respirator, avoiding exercise, and staying indoors with doors and windows tightly secured.

Those who experience a tightening in their chest or other respiratory symptoms should contact their local physicians for assistance. For additional information on wildfire smoke and your health please visit the Alaska Department of Health and Social Service’s wildfire smoke webpage. http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/eph/Pages/wildfire/

ADEC will issue air quality advisories based on measured or predicted particulate levels.

Drinking Water

If your well is in or near a burned area, ADEC recommends that property owners carefully check their water systems for damage and any nearby sources of contamination.

Be sure the power to your well pump is turned off before inspecting for damage.

Be sure the sanitary seal or well cap is securely fastened on top of the well casing to prevent any foreign material from dropping into the well. Look for damage to the following:

  • Rubber gaskets in the sanitary seal on the top of the well casing;
  • Electrical wiring and conduits that supply power to your well;
  • Well casing and/or PVC/HDPE liners inside the well;
  • Aboveground or encased plumbing that brings water from your well to your house;
  • Pressure tanks; or
  • Storage tanks, vents, and overflow pipes.

If you suspect damage to your well or associated electrical or plumbing components, contact a water well or pump contractor for repair.

Bacterial contamination can enter a well from inadequate pressure in the water lines resulting in backflow contamination from faucets, cracked well casings, waterline leakage, or infiltration of surface water into the well. As an initial precaution, ADEC advises that water used for drinking, cooking, hand washing, or dish washing, should first be boiled for at least 2 minutes.

As a precaution for bacterial contamination ADEC recommends that property owners disinfect their well with chlorine bleach. For guidance see:

During the disinfection procedure, the water will not be drinkable, therefore, a 24-hour supply of either bottled or boiled water should be on hand before the procedure is started. Plan to disinfect the well late at night or at other times when there is little need for water. After the disinfection procedure is completed, ADEC recommends to have your water tested for total coliform bacteria, and for nitrate, to ensure that it is safe to drink.

If you detect a fuel spill near your well, contact your local ADEC office to report the spill. You may want to have your well water tested to see if it may be contaminated with petroleum products that could pose a health risk to you and your family. For specific testing of your well water, ADEC recommends that you talk with an independent, state-certified laboratory about the problem you suspect and their recommendation for sampling analysis.

NOTE: Chlorine disinfection will not eliminate fuel contamination in your well water.

Wells should be unaffected by the fire retardant used by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the water spray used during cleanup. More information can be found below in the Fire Retardant section.

Food Safety and Sanitation

Loss of power is the enemy of safe food. Although food in your refrigerator or freezer is at risk during a power outage, the loss of power doesn’t always mean you must throw out all of the food.

Refrigerator

As a general rule, if the power is only out for a few hours and you keep the doors closed tightly, the temperature of the refrigerator will probably not rise into the food “danger zone” (above 40˚ F). Once refrigerated food temperatures rise above 40˚ F, they are typically only safe for about 2 hours. You cannot rely on a food’s appearance or odor to tell whether the food can make you sick.

Freezer

Food in a full free-standing freezer is safe for about 2 days if the temperature is kept at about 0˚ F. If the freezer is only half full, the time is reduced to 1 day. To keep your frozen food frozen during a power loss try to minimize opening the freezer door during an outage.

Food safety in a disaster or emergency, U.S. Department of Health and Social Services https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/food-safety-in-disaster-or-emergency/

Wastewater Disposal System

Fire impacts to onsite sewer systems should be minimal since the system is completely below ground. Melted cleanout pipes to the septic tank and drain field can be easily repaired by cutting off the damaged end of the standpipe, placing a connecting union clamp on the undamaged portion of the standpipe, and adding a new section of pipe to extend the standpipe above ground.

If you have any questions or concerns about potential damage to your sewer system you should contact a licensed professional engineer, a certified installer (list available on website listed below), or a septic professional in your area. If you suspect your system is damaged, you should limit the use of water in your home or business until the system is inspected and keep people and pets away from the system until it is inspected.

Solid Waste Disposal

Cleanup of fire impacted property can expose you to potential hazards or hazardous materials. Debris should be wetted down to minimize breathing of dust particles. For clean-up of general debris, filter masks and protective clothing are suggested to protect from exposure to dust and other particulates. Items such as outhouse remnants, plumbing fixtures, and sewer piping can contain high levels of bacteria. These items, and other solid waste debris, can be disposed of at the local landfill.

Household hazardous waste, such as kitchen and bathroom cleaning products, paints, solvents, batteries, and asbestos containing material, need to be properly handled and disposed of – contact local landfill to check on acceptance practices for these wastes.

Pressurized containers, such as propane and acetylene tanks, need to be inspected to ensure they have been fully vented.

Most general waste debris can be disposed at a permitted landfill. If no permitted landfill is available, contact ADEC Solid Waste Program https://dec.alaska.gov/eh/solid-waste/ for assistance 907-269-7802.

Oil and Hazardous Substance Spills

If a release of fuel, oil, or other hazardous substance is discovered please report the spill to ADEC:

Spill Reporting
Area Phone FAX
Central (Anchorage) 907-269-3063 269-7648
Northern (Fairbanks) 907-451-2121 451-2362
Southeast (Juneau) 907-465-5340 465-5245
All Regions after hours 1-800-478-9300  

Propane and heating oil tank owners should inspect their tanks and fuel lines. The tank may have shifted which can cause fuel lines to kink, weaken, strain or there may be loosened or damaged fittings that may be unsafe. If damage is suspected the home or business owner should contact their heating oil or propane suppliers to have the system inspected professionally. If damage is suspected turn supply valves off and keep them closed until the supplier inspects the system.

If you have a buried fuel tank, there may be some damage to the tank and/or the fuel lines connected to it. While more difficult to detect damage of underground tanks you should look for diesel odor around your tank or house or your furnace or boiler acting up. If you suspect there may be damage contact your fuel supplier for further inspection.

Fire Retardant

The common fire retardant used by the Forest Service is Fire-Trol LCG-R (PDF). https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/fire/wfcs/products/msds/retard/firetrol/ft_lcg-r.pdf The manufacturer indicates this retardant has been approved by the US Forest Service and has been used for the past 25 years with no reported health impacts on either workers or the public. The retardant is primarily ammonium phosphate, an agricultural fertilizer, with a clay thickener, corrosion inhibitor, and iron oxide (rust) colorant.

Buildings hit with the retardant can be cleaned with a water spray. Water generally removes retardant from roofs and painted and sealed surfaces. The red colorant may stain porous materials such as concrete. Wells should be unaffected by the retardant and the water spray used during cleanup.

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