Out of the Ashes

A hazardous waste crew from the EPA inspects a house on Trampa Canyon Road in Cachagua. The EPA was brought in using a public assistance grant that Monterey County received from FEMA.

On Monday, Oct. 12, crew members of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency household hazardous waste crew donned Tyvek suits, air-purifying respirators and boot protectors, and began searching through rubble. They are in stage one before debris removal can happen for structures damaged or destroyed by the Carmel Fire. This is the first step that will enable property owners to rebuild.

“After an emergency response comes the recovery phase. This is the first step,” says Jeremy Johnstone, an EPA task force leader. “After debris removal comes rebuilding.”

Before they can start debris removal, the crew checks oxygen levels and looks for hazardous or explosive gases like carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide or volatile organic compounds. They also look for radiation.

Then, with cans of different colors of spray paint – white meaning something is not hazardous, orange for an object that is potentially hazardous and pink signifying possible asbestos-containing material – they’re looking for anything that might pose a threat to crews coming in for phase two, debris removal, or needs special handling and disposal.

Combustion and melting of household products can also create dangerous chemicals, in addition to smoke. “When a house burns, a whole lot of toxic stuff is left behind, including heavy metals,” Monterey County Air Pollution Control Officer Richard Stedman says. “It’s a lot more toxic than if a forest burns.”

Three fires in Monterey County – Dolan, River and Carmel – destroyed 77 homes and 45 other structures since mid-August.

Phase one of the cleanup is being offered to property owners at no cost.

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