After a wildfire, those who have lost their home will encounter myriad unfamiliar challenges and pitfalls as they begin the recovery process. The psychological and emotional impact created by the enormity of wildfire devastation, coupled with the grief caused by the loss of a home and a lifelong accumulation of belongings is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can face.
Sean Scott, author of the book, Red Guide to Recovery
, a resource handbook for disaster survivors, said in an interview, “Wildfire survivors often suffer varying degrees of PTSD like symptoms and find themselves unable to make important decisions soon after the initial wildfire event. Recovery for the elderly, those with access or functional needs, and those with limited skills with the English language often experience far more difficulties recovering than others.”
As we watch people picking through the ashes of their home, Scott highlighted the significant risks they are taking, He pointed out that one pitfall that unsuspecting wildfire survivors encounter once the first responders leave the scene is exposure to toxic substances generated by the fire and other health hazards. Survivors often rush to their homes to assess the damage and begin sifting through the debris looking for keepsakes in shorts and flip flops, without considering the potential health and safety risks.
What most people don’t realize is that wildfires typically generate high concentrations of toxic chemicals, poisonous gases, heavy metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, and other toxins generated by the combustion of plastics, furniture, vehicles, building materials, and household products. These contaminants mix with one another to form furans, dioxins, acids, and innumerable toxic byproducts that fill the air and become part of the ash and airborne particulate. Many of these chemicals are extremely dangerous to your health and can cause sickness and/or disease with only one exposure.
Furthermore, soot and ash can also pose a health risk if they come in contact with your bare skin, where they can be absorbed. Scott recommended the following safety tips:
• Avoid breathing air contaminated by smoke odor and minimize your exposure to contaminated areas.
• If you need to enter a fire or smoke damaged structure, wear proper personal protective equipment, including a proper fitting respirator with a P-100 HEPA filter designed to filter vapor or gasses (not a dust mask), eye protection, disposable coveralls, gloves, work boots, etc..
• Avoid handling or coming in direct skin contact with items or materials affected by smoke, soot, or ash.
• Avoid getting ash into the air as much as possible. Do not use leaf blowers that will put ash into the air.
• If you experience any adverse health symptoms from exposure to smoke or soot, seek medical attention immediately.
Scott called out that one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, challenges in the recovery process will be navigating the insurance claim process. Here you will be required to create an inventory of all the personal property that was in or around the home, get accurate estimates for the rebuilding of the home, outbuildings, and landscaping, etc. This process requires great patience as most wildfire insurance claims do not completely settle for a year to two years after the date of the actual event.
Once you have finalized the insurance claim process and have money to begin the rebuilding, you’ll need to be very careful to select the right contractor to do the reconstruction. It is all too common to hear stories of homeowners that have been victimized twice by disasters, once by the event itself and then a second time by a contractor who either took the homeowner’s money and ran or did shoddy work, leaving the homeowner with a home that is unfinished or unlivable.
Lastly, one of the pitfalls that Scott pointed to is that after a fire there are scams and/or opportunists that descend of disaster-stricken areas. Scott noted that often times scam artists will set up shop in a motel or hotel and offer free disaster seminars or claim assistance as a means to select their victims. They may show up to local town-hall meetings and pass out cards or flyers offering a vast array of services, often at discounted rates (especially for wildfire survivors) These tactics can be avoided by simply doing your homework, doing thorough background checks and not signing anything until you have your attorney review any contracts before signing.
One of the best things you can do is become better informed personally about the disaster recovery process. His book, referenced above, is chocked full of good information that can be used by individuals, agencies and nonprofits to better serve themselves and the people they serve.
Eric is a nationally known emergency manager and consultant. He has 28 years of emergency management experience, having served at the federal, state (Washington), and local government (King County) level, as well as in the nonprofit sector.