Cleanup health and injury hazards after wildfires


Although wildfires can happen at any time, August and September are the months when Southern California’s large fires are more prevalent. Those are the times when thousands of wildfire fighters risk their lives to save others’ lives and properties. However, the life-threatening hazards go far beyond fighting fires. The cleanup procedures in the aftermath of a wildfire pose additional dangers.

Conditions remain dangerous even after fighters extinguish the fire. Furthermore, cleaning up after fires occurs during the hot summer months, putting firefighters in danger of suffering heat-related illnesses.

Common cleanup hazards

In the aftermath of a wildfire, the risk of re-ignition is always present. So, while keeping a lookout for further fire risks, wildfire fighters can encounter any of the following hazards:

  • Unstable structures: Fire damage can cause instability of structures like houses and other buildings, but the dangers may not be evident. Damaged floors can cause slips or trips and falls, and damaged walls, ceilings and roofs can collapse onto firefighters.
  • Unstable trees: Before starting the cleanup process, assessing the stability of nearby trees is crucial. Unstable trees can fall onto workers or already damaged buildings, increasing the danger for those inside unstable structures.
  • Confined spaces: Any area with limited entry or exit openings is dangerous, like utility vaults, storage tanks, wells and septic tanks. Hazards like the presence of toxic gases and the absence of enough oxygen may go unnoticed, and death can occur in a blink of an eye.
  • Carbon monoxide: CO is an odorless and colorless gas that can cause death within minutes. Extra care is necessary when working with or near diesel or gasoline-powered generators, pressure washers and pumps.
  • Electrical hazards: Fallen or damaged power poles and energized electrical wires can cause electrocution and should be left for utility workers to repair.
  • Hazardous materials: Hazardous materials could be anywhere and must be identified before cleanup starts. Potentially hazardous materials include gasoline, propane, pesticides, lead and asbestos.
  • Musculoskeletal injuries: Pushing, pulling, lifting and carrying heavy objects during cleanup can cause serious injuries with long-term consequences. Potential disorders and injuries include damage to nerves, muscles, joints, tendons, spinal discs or cartilage can result from working with vibrating equipment that needs force and awkward body postures.
  • Smoke and ash: In the aftermath of a wildfire, the residual ash and smoke continue to pose dangers. Inhalation of smoke and fine particles of ash could irritate eyes, nose and respiratory system.
  • Heat-related hazards: Cleanup work is taxing, especially in hot weather. Potential heat-related damage includes heat rash, heat stress, heat cramps and heatstroke.
  • Fatigue and stress: Working for long hours in these challenging conditions could cause physical fatigue and emotional stress. Cleanup workers who continue working despite fatigue face increased injury risks.

How to deal with medical expenses and lost wages

The workers’ compensation insurance program in California receive many wildfire fighting-related claims each year. Injured workers who have to deal with the complicated benefits claims process while they prefer to focus on recovery might find comfort in knowing that help is available. An experienced California workers’ compensation attorney can navigate the claims process in pursuit of maximum applicable benefit.

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