Act now to remove ash and protect soil

Special to The Times

If the destructive force of fire is part of living in Southern California, then so is the recovery. Here are the most important first steps that should be taken immediately to clean up potentially dangerous ash and to protect the soil and slopes.

Beware of the dust

David Palitz, who runs a waste cleanup service in Fountain Valley, says that ash removal can be hazardous and recommends preparing properly.

For the heaviest cleanups, he recommends wearing a dust suit, construction boots, two sets of gloves (latex and leather), a dust mask and goggles.

Palitz warns against rushing the job: "Asbestos, fiberglass and who knows what else is now ash and easily kicked up." If it's a home built or remodeled before 1980, and so asbestos may indeed be part of the debris, he suggests that owners call in professional help.

Getting rid of ash

Pathways and work areas should be cleaned first. These high-traffic areas need to be free of anything that can hinder, injure or irritate workers. For heavy ash, use "a push broom with a snow shovel, plastic bags or rented Dumpsters," Palitz says. "There's no other way besides hiring a skip loader."

For lighter ash and the thousands of homes and yards that were dusted with it, water is the answer. Jessica Green, a landscape designer and organic gardener, recommends that houses and landscapes should be given a thorough shower, if the rains have not already done so.

"Ash was covering all the plants in my neighborhood," Green says. "It clogs their pores and slows photosynthesis. Ash is good for the soil anyway; it's high in potassium and phosphorus."

Hosing the ash into flowerbeds can be good for future growth. But using a blower to remove it is never a good idea, Green says. "It just gives it to someone else."

Craig Justice, the senior water quality analyst with Laguna Beach's Water Quality Department, says that it's OK to hose down an area once it has been swept, but he encourages people not to spray the debris into the drainage system. "The ash will eventually make it to the ocean, which is not beneficial in large quantities," Justice said.

Check drainage systems

Litter is everywhere after a fire, and drainage systems can be severely clogged. Water running off obstructed drainage systems is the leading cause of flooding and erosion, fire or not.

With winter rains only weeks away, making sure that a property drains properly is a top concern. "Gutters, culverts, drains and catch basins need to be completely cleaned out," Justice says.

Stopping soil loss

According to the California Department of Forestry, the chance of topsoil loss leaps by as much as 200% after a fire. The plant debris, ground cover and shrubs that once held and protected the soil are damaged or gone.

Adding to the problem are the resins and waxes left behind when plants melt. As the vapors cool, they solidify and create a waxy layer just below the surface. When rain hits, it bounces off and runs downhill unobstructed.

Adam Rowe, a landscaper from the small town of Rough and Ready in the Sierra foothills, says that for severely damaged areas, homeowners need to be patient with slope restoration: "Do not remove any debris from the slope just yet. It slows the water."

Avoid unnecessary walking on a slope. Foot traffic breaks up the soil, making it more susceptible to wind erosion. It may also prevent seeds from germinating.

"Possibly the most important thing to do is to divert rain runoff from the hill," he says. "This is the water that can wash it away." Rowe recommends gently watering a slope before the heavy winter rains come. A light watering will help break the waxy layer, bind the smaller particles together and may inspire seed and injured shrubs to sprout.

"The next step is sometimes the hardest," Rowe says . "The emergencies are over and you've got to find out how bad things are. Your hill's stability will be a problem for some time."

He advises testing the slope for erosion, then applying remedies before it becomes a problem. "Maintaining stability can be as mild as laying out mulch and watering, or as severe as sandbags, matting and plastic sheeting. You've just got to get to it before it gets to you."

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