California fires: Response and recovery health hazards

October 25th, 2017 by Julie Ferguson
A firefighter working in the California fires

Photo: Mike Blake / Reuters

In the wake of the devastating California fires, the massive debris field – formerly neighborhoods, homes and businesses – is now a toxic environmental brew that poses risks to cleanup and recovery workers and residents alike. Kirk Johnson discusses the environmental and health risks of the California fire cleanup in an article in the New York Times.

“In modern times this has got be an unprecedented event, and a major hazard for the public and for property owners,” said Dr. Alan Lockwood, a retired neurologist who has written widely about public health. He said an apt comparison might be the environmental cleanup after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in New York, as debris and dust swirled through Lower Manhattan.

As could well happen too in California, Dr. Lockwood said, the health and environmental effects were felt long after the attack, in the chemicals or pollutants workers and responders at the site, and the public at large, may been exposed to as the cleanup went on.

The scope of the fire disaster in California is hard to comprehend:  Photos Capture Apocalyptic Aftermath Of California Wildfires. Also: and the Los Angeles Times Mapping the destruction from California’s wine country fires.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t offer a tribute to the 9,000+ hard-working firefighters on the front lines who risked life and limb to contain the fires, rescue people and save property. See NPR’s story by Eric Westervelt: In Northern California, Exhausted Firefighters Push Themselves ‘To The Limits’.

See the Atlantic‘s In Focus for a display of photos that document the danger and the destruction.

One interesting and little known aspect of the battle against the fires is that 30-40% of the firefighters battling the fires were prisoners, according to Mother Jones. About 4,000 low-risk prisoners save the state about $80 million a year. Inmates are volunteers who are trained in a four-week program, receive $2 an hour and earn a 2-day sentence reduction for every day served. Typically, they are low-risk felons.

“Career firefighters do things like flying in helicopters and driving bulldozers; inmate firefighters use hand tools, like chainsaws, axes, and rakes, to contain the fire by clearing out the vegetation around it. The prisoners participate in a four-week training process—the same process that other state firefighters go through—proving that they’re fit enough to work through brush in the heat of a fire while carrying up to 100 pounds of gear. They work in teams of about 15 people, supervised by a fire captain. When there’s a big fire blazing, the teams work in shifts of 24 hours, followed by a 24-hour break. When not tending fires, the inmates do other conservation work, often clearing brush to prevent future fires.”

Jaime Lowe of the New York Times reports on The Incarcerated Women Who Fight California’s wildfires. It talks more about how the program works and takes an up-close look at some of the female inmates on the front lines, including the very real risks they take. While many tout this as a win-win for both the state and the inmates, there are many limitations in terms of the rehabilitative value. Lowe says:

“C.D.C.R. says that the firefighter program is intended to serve as rehabilitation for the inmates. Yet they’re being trained to work in a field they will probably have trouble finding a job in when they get out: Los Angeles County Fire won’t hire felons and C.D.C.R. doesn’t offer any formal help to inmates who want firefighting jobs when they’re released.”

Further in the article, Lowe talks more about this:

When I visited Rainbow, I asked a Cal Fire captain named Danny Ramirez why the state wouldn’t increase the incentive to join the program by paying even a little bit more. He didn’t have a ready answer. Which brought up another puzzling aspect of the program: Why doesn’t the state get more out of its investment in training these women by hiring them when they’re released? Or at the very least, by creating a pathway to employment? Ramirez said the idea ‘‘to keep tags on the girls’’ had come up before. ‘‘Some of these girls leave very interested in what they got exposed to and say, ‘Oh I never knew this exists, how do I keep on doing this?’ And it’s hard when they get out there because they do have a lot of the same walls that they were facing before. But a program to keep them guided and keep them on that path and keep them focused on something instead of getting back into their old ways or old friends would be awesome.’’


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