As a chaotic wildfire season winds down, many Oregonians have piles of potentially hazardous rubble where their homes or businesses once stood.
Environmental regulators say the first step to rebuilding is carefully cleaning up the hazardous waste left behind and making sure it is disposed of properly.
For the past two weeks, cleanup workers with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been doing that work in Jackson County as part of a Debris Management Taskforce that includes federal, state and local governments with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
This week, they started working in Marion, Lane and Linn counties, and they expect the work to continue for at least another month.
At one of many houses in the town of Gates that burned in the Beachie Creek wildfire last month, EPA workers wearing hazmat suits and respirators dug through scraps of metal looking for hazardous material.
“They’re looking for acids, petroleum products, any kind of ammunition they might find,” EPA Incident Commander Randy Nattis said, noting that things like paint and asbestos are common household hazards that can pollute the environment or make people sick if they’re not carefully removed after a fire.
“All this hazardous material that is now exposed to the environment and can be dangerous to human health,” he said.
So far, his agency has removed and disposed of hazardous waste left behind by wildfires at more than 450 properties across Oregon. Nattis said he’s expecting that number to reach 2,500.
“We’re here to help,” he said. “We want to keep the residents safe. We want to do this job for them. We want to make these hazards go away so they can start the recovery process.”
Nattis said his agency is advising property owners not to walk through their properties until hazardous waste cleanup work is done.
Storms could create additional hazards for property owners in areas that burned, he said, and it’s safer to have trained EPA experts do the cleanup work.
“There’s certainly erosion as the rain comes in, the soil is loose, tree roots have been burned out,” Nattis said. “So there’s big issues from just a health and safety standpoint.”
The service is free to homeowners who fill out a right of entry form that gives officials access to their property.
Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler said he is encouraging anyone with property in a fire zone to submit a right of entry form to allow government agencies to help with the cleanup and rebuilding process. The state has extended the deadline for the forms to be completed.
“Clearly, the devastation of the impact here cannot be overstated,” Strickler said. “The emotional trauma that people are dealing with is real, and we want to be sensitive to that. This is the first step in many steps along the way for our cleanup effort.”
Strickler said debris and ash cleanup can begin after the hazardous waste cleanup, and only then can property owners start rebuilding.
“We recognize this is a long process,” he said. “The EPA and others are doing great work right now for the hazardous waste portion, but then the rebuild effort that comes after that is going to take some time, and we recognize that people are impacted that entire time.”
Strickler said some property owners might not be filling out the right of entry form because they want to do the cleanup work themselves to speed up the process and have more control.
“Maybe some have the individual means to address the cleanup on their own,” he said. “I will own and recognize that it’s probably not always a welcome conversation to say, ‘The state’s coming in to help,’ and we want to make sure that people see us as a good partner.”
But he said while property owners can hire certified contractors to do the work, he still recommends signing a right of entry form so the state can help ensure safety and find proper disposal sites for the material.
“Ash is still a hazardous material, and so we have to be cognizant of that, and we’re asking homeowners to be cognizant of that as well,” he said. “The hazardous nature of the material doesn’t change.”
Brian Nicholas, Marion County Public Works director, said about 800 residential houses and commercial properties suffered structural fire damage in his county, and about 70% of the residents have submitted right of entry forms for the state to start cleanup work.
“This really is the best way for property owners to get that work done right now,” he said. “Getting a contractor right now is going to be difficult."
Nicholas said he’s concerned that the contamination will spread pollution into the soil and local watersheds.
“It really needs to be removed,” he said. “The longer this material is allowed to sit — household hazardous waste in particular, heavy metals, acids, that sort of thing — the more opportunity there is for that material to seep into the soil and then potentially the more soil has to be removed.”