How Does California Clean Up After a Disaster Like the Woolsey Fire?

The Woolsey fire is winding down, but the cleanup process is just beginning.

As of Tuesday, the Woolsey fire had destroyed at least 1,500 homes, buildings, and businesses in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, making it one of the most destructive wildfires in the region’s history. Though the burn is mostly under control now (it’s expected to be fully contained by Thanksgiving day), officials now face the task of cleaning up the many acres of charred debris it left in its wake, a process that will likely take several months.


Littered with materials like asbestos, pesticides, plastics, and electronic devices, the ruins of burned homes can have a harmful impact on the surrounding environment if left to sit for too long. To prevent chemicals from seeping into the soil and nearby waterways, hazmat-suited workers from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control are the first ones sent out to burn sites. “They collect chemicals, propane cylinders—all the stuff that is an immediate threat to the environment and the people working there,” says Lance Klug of CalRecycle, the state agency that will oversee cleanup of the Woolsey Fire.

In the meantime, local governments begin collecting “right of entry” forms from property owners, giving CalRecycle’s solid-waste removal crews permission to enter their properties. Working in teams of three to five, these contracted crews conduct soil sampling, count vehicles, and document damage, before hauling off truckloads of ash, dirt, and waste to local landfills. Last year’s Thomas fire, which burned about 450 fewer structures, produced 258,039 tons of this debris.

Other materials, like concrete and metal, are sold to local recycling centers, helping to offset the steep cost of cleanup. Each lot burned by the Thomas fire cost about $96,880 to recover, resulting in a total cleanup cost of a total of $65.1 million. Klug says the price for the Woolsey fire might vary dramatically depending on weather conditions, distribution of sites, site access, and a number of other factors.

Once the lots are cleared, crews spray the ground with a substance called “tackifier” to help bind the soil together and prevent erosion. It’s meant to reduce the risk of mudslides like the ones that happened after the Thomas fire (or the ones that are could happen later this week). But it’s not a fail-safe solution, Klug says. “Obviously in areas like Southern California, where you see mudslides following the wildfires, you can only do so much,” he says. “CalRecycle uses best practices to try to limit that as much as possible.”

Following a final inspection that assures the site is safe and the soil is returned to “pre-fire conditions,” the properties are returned to their owners. And then they’re faced with a tough decision: file a permit to rebuild or relocate to an area that that might not burn again in the future.

RELATED: California Department of Toxic Substances Control Says Rumors of “Radioactive Ash” from the Woolsey Fire Are Unsubstantiated

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