Wildfire JIC cautions residents about potential health risks from fires

Residential wildfire debris may be dangerous

Santa Fe – The Wildfire Joint Information Center provides guidance to residents returning to their homes after destructive fires.

Homeowners should be aware of the immediate and long-term health risks associated with exposure to residential wildfire ash and debris. Whenever possible, residents should avoid or minimize contact with fire debris.

“We know people are anxious to return to their homes and assess the damage caused by recent, devastating wildfires,” said Carla Walton DHSEM Deputy Secretary. “They often want to sift through the debris to see if anything is salvageable, but we strongly caution against it. The ash and debris could be dangerous or toxic.”

Residential wildfire debris may contain some or all of the following:

  • Tiny particles of dust, dirt and soot that can easily become airborne and inhaled.
  • Toxic amounts of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and mercury.
  • Asbestos.
  • Hazardous materials such as propane tanks, air conditioners, batteries, cleaning products, pesticides, and herbicides.

Reducing your exposure while sifting through residential wildfire debris may not be prohibited but for your safety and the safety of others, it is not recommended. In addition to irritating your skin, nose, and throat, substances like asbestos and cadmium have been known to cause cancer. Property owners who want to search debris for possible salvageable items should do so with caution and with proper protective gear.

  • Avoid disturbing debris or kicking up ash.
  • NIOSH-Certified air purifying respirator masks are highly recommended. A mask rated N-95 is more effective at blocking particles.
  • Wear gloves, long shirts, pants, safety eyewear or any other protective clothing.
  • Change shoes and clothing as soon as you are off-site to avoid contaminating your vehicle, home, or other non-contaminated areas.
  • Even with protective clothing and masks, children should not be exposed to wildfire ash or debris.

Property cleanup and debris removal after a major wildfire is an essential step to protect public health and initiate recovery. The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, New Mexico Environment Department, and FEMA are coordinating a plan to assist property owners in removing fire debris from impacted homes and buildings. More information will be shared with the public once available.

Until approved by the proper authorities, property owners are advised not to begin debris removal. Beginning debris removal from destroyed homes or buildings prior to approval could jeopardize eligibility for future Federal or State debris removal assistance.