Stett Holbrook, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN
The disaster of October’s wildfires didn’t stop once the flames were finally extinguished. The toxic ash left by the firestorms—incinerated plastics, hydrocarbons, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals—lay like a ticking bomb on home sites, awaiting a rain storm to wash the deadly debris into drains and creeks. Once in waterways, the lethal plume could infiltrate watersheds and imperil drinking water and aquatic life. But thanks to an unprecedented public-private partnership, protection from that environmental hazard in hard-hit areas like Coffey Park, Larkfield-Wikiup and Fountain Grove has come from an unlikely source: mushrooms.
Erik Ohlsen, a landscape architect and permaculture educator, saw that second wave of disaster coming and acted quickly to rally a diverse team of volunteers, environmental groups, landowners and public agencies to deploy cutting-edge bioremediation techniques using mushrooms and compost to absorb and neutralize the deadly runoff. He created the Fire Remediation Action Coalition on Facebook to help organize the effort and spread the word.
And word spread quickly. The project took off as another example of the volunteerism and generosity that have characterized local efforts after the fire. Sebastopol’s Gourmet Mushrooms donated thousands of pounds of substrate used to grow mushrooms. Sonoma Compost and West Marin Compost donated compost. Petaluma’s Wattle Guy provided, you guessed it, wattles—barriers and fences made from natural materials like rice straw and sticks. And groups like Russian Riverkeepers and the Clean River Alliance marshaled volunteers to make, fill and install the wattles and monitor water flow during and after the recent rains.
Read more at: Natural Remedy | Features | North Bay Bohemian
Matt Weiser, KQED SCIENCE
In 2014, scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service published a study showing that two fire-retardant formulations are deadly to Chinook salmon, even when heavily diluted in streams.
Chemical fire retardants are considered a vital wildland firefighting tool, helping to slow the spread of flames while ground crews move into position. But as their use increases, the harmful side effects of these chemicals are coming under increasing scrutiny.
The chemicals, usually dropped from low-flying aircraft, largely consist of ammonia compounds, which are known toxins to fish and other aquatic life. Studies have shown retardants can kill fish, alter soil chemistry, feed harmful algae blooms and even encourage the spread of invasive plants. Yet there is little regulation of their use, and no safer alternatives on the market.
In California, state firefighting crews have applied 15.3 million gallons of chemical fire retardants so far this year, according to data provided by CalFire, the state’s wildland firefighting agency. That’s a new record, and double the amount used just three years ago.
CalFire applied 2.7 million gallons of retardant in a single one-week period starting October 9 – also a record. Of that amount, about 2 million gallons were used on the North Bay wildfires, which killed 43 people and burned more than 8,000 structures in October as they swept across several counties north of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Sonoma and Napa.
Read more at: Fire Retardant Use Explodes as Worries About Water, Wildlife Grow | KQED Science
Matthew Lo, THE DAILY CALIFORNIAN
Another article on this study
With the coming rainy season, some Sonoma County residents are fearful of the effects of runoff from the recent North Bay fires entering the nearby Russian River, a major source of water for Sonoma and Marin counties.
Scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory are studying the fire’s impact on the Russian River and the groundwater system, which serves about 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, according to an article published by the lab last week.
The fires, which began Oct. 8, burned more than 100,000 acres and destroyed more than 5,700 structures. Many UC Berkeley students hail from the affected area and were subsequently uprooted from their communities.
The lab is also working with the United States Geological Survey, or USGS, and Sonoma County Water Agency, or SCWA, to monitor water quality in Sonoma County, according to an SCWA press release published last month.
There are six riverbank filtration systems located along and around Sonoma County’s Russian River, according to Michelle Newcomer, a postdoctoral fellow in the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division at the lab.
These riverbank systems, which pump river water 20 meters underground to natural aquifers, use sediments and environmental aerobic microbes to filter the water, according to Newcomer.
Read more at: Berkeley Lab studies effects of North Bay fires on Sonoma County water
Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
It’s called “first flush,” the rain that fell last week upon the scars of recent wildfires and threatened to wash into local streams whatever ash, debris or contaminants had been left upon the landscape.
From fire retardant to heavy metals to organic byproducts and exposed sediment, anything left behind by the flames was at risk of being swept into storm drains and streams during the season’s first substantial rains, experts said.
Public agencies are hopeful that a feverish effort to deploy thousands of straw wattles and other barriers around burned structures, charred hillsides and storm drain inlets prevented some pollution from occurring with storm runoff.
But strategic stream testing will help measure their success as water quality engineers and experts gear up for what will be a long-term campaign to protect water resources and restore scorched watersheds into the rainy season and beyond.
“Healthy watersheds mean a healthy environment, and right now we have a very unhealthy watershed,” said Sonoma Clean Power Director of Programs Cordel Stillman, who is helping to coordinate county and municipal watershed recovery projects in the wake of the wildfire disaster.
Read more at: Damage to creeks, water supply analyzed after Sonoma County fires
Letter to the Editor, PRESS DEMOCRAT
EDITOR: An article in last Wednesday’s paper quoted officials regarding the urgency for fire clean-up before winter rains commence (“With upcoming rain, fear of contamination”). Property owners are reluctant thus far to allow government to clean up their toxic ash and may be setting the stage for a secondary tragedy: massive polluting of our waterways.
Remaining ash, containing an eviscerated combination of toxic products, may be washed into the water or settle on gardens and farms to do irreparable damage. This stuff is so toxic that men in white suits with masks, gloves and boots have to remove it to a special place where they allow toxic wastes.
It is time-consuming, dirty, expensive and hazardous. And it needs to be done immediately before the heavy rains begin.
Those holding off may find it hard to find qualified people to do the job properly and affordably so they can obtain permits to rebuild. Time is of the essence to get it done. Please sign your right-of-entry form, and let others arrange to do the work free of charge.
It’s a hard choice. We feel sympathy for people having to make it, but the effects could be so dire, it might greatly compound the suffering and loss.
BRENDA ADELMAN, Russian River Watershed Protection Committee
Source: Wednesday’s Letters to the Editor
Adam Rogers, WIRED
By any measure, the fires that tore through Northern California were a major disaster. Forty-two people are dead, and 100,000 are displaced. More than 8,400 homes and other buildings were destroyed, more than 160,000 acres burned—and the fires aren’t all out yet.
That devastation leaves behind another potential disaster: ash. No one knows how much. It’ll be full of heavy metals and toxins—no one knows exactly how much, and it depends on what burned and at what temperature. The ash will infiltrate soils, but no one’s really sure how or whether that’ll be a problem. And eventually some of it—maybe a lot—will flow into the regional aquatic ecosystem and ultimately the San Francisco Bay.
That’s the bomb. Here’s the timer: An old, grim joke about the California says that the state only has three seasons: summer, fire, and mudslides. Those mudslides happen because of rain; the Santa Ana (or Diablo, if you’d prefer) wind-driven wildfires of autumn give way to a monsoon season that lasts through winter and into spring. The rains of 2016-2017 ended a longstanding drought and broke all kinds of records.
Scientists and environmental health agencies know, mostly, what to expect from ash that comes from burned vegetation. But these fires included something a little new. They burned through the wildland-urban interface and into cities. “For how many structures that were burned in fairly small areas in these fires, I think that’s a first-of-its-kind event,” says Geoffrey Plumlee, associate director of environmental health for the US Geological Survey. “The concern is, can they get it cleaned up before the heavy rains come?”
Read more at: After the Napa Fires, Toxic Ash Threatens Soil, Streams, and the San Francisco Bay | WIRED
Kurtis Alexander, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
While the worst of the wildfires is over for Wine Country, the region faces another daunting test: the cleanup of heaps of ash, twisted metal and blackened debris scattered across some 250 square miles of burned hills and valleys — an area five times the size of San Francisco.Never before has California seen such wildfire destruction. The blazes that roared through Napa and Sonoma counties this month obliterated at least 7,200 houses, barns and businesses, including entire neighborhoods, each with untold amounts of hazardous items now littered about, from pesticides to propane to melted plastics.
Residents are eager to get their properties cleared of the often toxic wreckage so that they can rebuild, though it will be months before any construction starts. Plans for the huge cleanup are still being worked out, with a goal of finishing early next year. The state will lead the effort, in partnership with the federal government, but only after the fires are extinguished and logistics are addressed.
Officials need to find landfills with enough space to take the rubble and get consent from landowners to clear their properties, matters that could take weeks. Once that’s done, the state is likely to hire hundreds if not thousands of contractors to truck out the debris from private residences and public property. Businesses and their insurers, though, will probably be responsible for cleanup at their sites.
Read more at: Next challenge in Wine Country fires: colossal cleanup before winter rains – San Francisco Chronicle
Christi Warren, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Don McEnhill, Russian Riverkeeper: “I am very concerned, but there’s only so much you can do. You cannot prevent 100 percent of the toxins and things from going in (the watershed), but I feel like with the meetings that have been held this week, people have been very proactive about threats to the watershed, and that does give me hope that we’re going to do everything we possibly can before we have the rains come in.”
With ash now blanketing much of Sonoma County, environmentalists are turning their efforts to debris removal in a race against the oncoming rainy season. Their primary concern: protecting the watershed from toxic runoff.
As the fire roared through Santa Rosa, car batteries, insulation, couches, industrial facilities, carpets, plastics — all things that shouldn’t burn — did.
In response, Cal Fire officials created the Watershed Emergency Response Team. A coalition of state and federal agencies, as well as local environmental nonprofits, it’s dedicated to keeping as much debris as possible out of the county’s waterways.
Their next step will be to evaluate the fire areas and identify which of those are at the most risk for watershed emergencies, prioritizing debris removal and runoff mitigation that way, said Johnny Miller, a public information officer for Cal Fire.
Once identified, sandbags, barriers and straw wattles will be placed to protect against any erosion that could result from winter rains. While Sonoma County is expected to get rain tonight and Friday morning, the .25 inches that could fall is not enough to cause officials much concern.
This winter could be another story. With the North Bay facing a La Niña, it’s hard to tell just how much rain might fall, said Steve Anderson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.
“Typically that means wetter than normal in the Pacific Northwest and dry in the desert Southwest,” he said.
But in the North Bay, “There are equal chances of above and below normal. … We’ll just have to see what kind of weather patterns set up.”
Read more at: In Sonoma County toxic debris removal, officials in a race against rains | The Press Democrat –
Kevin McCallum,THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
If Santa Rosa annexes Roseland, a long-planned move it could advance this week, the city will inherit a vibrant neighborhood with a high Latino population, an acute shortage of parkland and a long list of needed infrastructure upgrades.
It also will bring into its borders some seriously contaminated properties.
Roseland has one of the highest concentrations in the city of industrial and commercial properties with soil and groundwater contaminated by toxic substances such as gasoline, diesel and chemical solvents.
Leaking underground gas station tanks, motor oil from salvage yards, and chemicals dumped down the drain by dry cleaning businesses have all made Roseland a hot spot for environmental clean-up efforts over recent decades. In 1982, gasoline fumes seeped into Roseland Elementary School, forcing its closure. A few years later, an underground diesel fuel leak threatened the well water supplies of 2,200 residents.
And in 1992, Sam’s For Play Cafe had to be evacuated because gas fumes backed up through the sewer — the consequence of a rising water table pushing the petroleum products upward. Concentration levels got so high in some places that officials, fearing explosions, declared a state of emergency.
The issue was so serious that the Sebastopol Road and McMinn Avenue area was listed as a Superfund site until 1994.
Read more at: Toxic pollution in Roseland a big concern for Santa Rosa in annexation | The Press Democrat
Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Inquiries and inspections have been made about septic tanks, porta-potty operations and homeless encampments as well, in an effort to narrow down the cause, ….
Updates on the status of the beach are available at sonomacounty.ca.gov/Health/Environmental-Health/Water-Quality/Fresh-Water-Quality/.
Monte Rio Beach will remain closed to swimming for at least one more day as public officials continue to pursue the reason for elevated lab tests that indicate contamination of the water with harmful bacteria, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services reported Monday.
The decision to keep beach-goers out of that stretch of the Russian River through at least Tuesday extends the ongoing beach closure to a fifth day, though officials have yet to confirm or pinpoint any specific hazard or source of pollution.
But state guidelines governing water quality required the closure last week because of test results above the state-allowed threshold for two indicator bacteria considered markers for possible fecal contamination. The beach status is now considered day-to-day.
The latest round of testing put total coliform bacteria at 11,199 organisms per 100 milliliters of sampled water collected off the beach Sunday, Deputy County Health Officer Karen Holbrook said. The state standard is 10,000 organisms per 100 ml.E. coli was measured at 149 organisms per 100 milliliters in samples taken Sunday. The state standard is 235 per 100 ml.E. coli levels dropped below the safety threshold July 6 and appear to have stayed there, though they remain above the two-digit numbers typical of routine testing at 10 Russian River beaches conducted by the county.
The highest test result in the past week put the E. coli level at 833 organisms per 100 ml. or almost four times the state standard, possibly as a result of huge crowds at the beach over the July Fourth weekend.
Read more at: Russian River beach still closed; officials search for cause of high bacteria levels | The Press Democrat