After the fires, rain — and the threat of toxic runoff

Dec 4, 2017

The sheer amount of hazardous mess left behind by the North Bay fires is unprecedented — and dangerous to the Russian River watershed. As it starts to rain, experts say any amount of precipitation will pick up toxic fire debris and transport it down storm drains.

One of Katya Robinson’s favorite things about her Coffey Park home was the walkway up to her front door.

“We had this great front little wavy fence that was really welcoming and a beautiful tomato garden right here, to the left,” she points as we step over piles of ash and fire debris. “Now, it kind of looks like big pile of trash.”

Her home, like almost all of the others in her neighborhood, was completely leveled in the fire. All that’s left are some cast iron pans, mangled hot water heaters, and pools of melted metal. The blackened skeleton of her car is one of hundreds, oddly sitting in the driveways of the flattened subdivision.

The inside of Katya Robinson's car.
Credit Angela Johnston

Cleanup mode

We stand in what was her living room and take a look around. Despite the utter destruction, Coffey Park is alive: Robinson’s neighbors are cutting down branches from a tree. Across the street, a family waves a metal detector over the ground. Backhoes grab giant chunks of crumbled homes and dump them into white trucks.

Everyone, she says, is now in cleanup mode.

“We had some hazardous waste. I run two soccer leagues, so we had a lot of field-lighting paint here, like 48 cases. So we tried to group those over there so they can just take those away, really fast,” she says as she points to the gutter.

Credit Angela Johnston

“One really good rain, and all that stuff, all this stuff and plastic is going to be leaking into the soil. It’s dangerous, it’s going to go into our water system.”

More than a dozen groups are working as fast as possible to keep that from happening.

"One really good rain, and all that stuff and plastic is going to be leaking into the soil. It's dangerous, it's going to go into our water system."

Racing against the weather forecast

Jeremiah Puget, who works for the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, drives me around Santa Rosa, pointing out EPA workers in white hazmat suits and pink masks as they pick up propane tanks and put them into pickup trucks.

“[O]ne of the first things that has to happen is the EPA has to first come in and remove any potentially hazardous materials," Puget says.

When the EPA is done, they stake a sign with a big green check mark out front. It’s now safe for homeowners to return, and for crews like Puget’s, and from Cal Fire, FEMA, and the California Office of Emergency Services, to dive in.

The EPA stakes signs outside of homes after they have removed hazardous waste.
Credit Angela Johnston

Crews place tubes of hay called wattles in between the debris and streams or the storm drain. (Almost all the wattles you see in Santa Rosa are made by a local hero called Doug the Wattle guy.) 

“It’s amazing what just a little wattle can do,” Puget adds.

Wattles are everywhere, in front of almost every car, every driveway, every storm drain, and surrounding every charred and metallic pile.

 

Fire is a normal part of the ecology, and the water board is trained to deal with its aftermath — but this, he says, is brand new territory.

“It's a totally different scene when we have burnt homes that contain asbestos or other ... carcinogens that we don't want mobilized into the environment that we recreate in, that we swim in, that we get our water supplies from,” Puget says. “We have never encountered anything quite like this. The scope of this is astounding. It's on a scale that we haven't seen before.”

"It's amazing what just a little wattle can do."

Since the fire, the Sonoma County Water agency has been testing the public water supply more often, and so far, everything has been fine.

Yet there’s a bigger risk for the creatures that live in rivers and the streams. The Russian River watershed is a habitat for crawfish, salmon, and river otters, which all have much lower thresholds for toxins and metals than we do.

That’s where volunteer groups have noticed gaps and jumped in to help.

Protecting the watershed, and the creatures that live in it

On a Saturday morning in November, Chris Brokate directs a handful of volunteers as they fill sandbags and lay wattles across a small creek downstream from Coffey Park.

Volunteers with Clean River Alliance put wattles into a creek downstream from Coffey Park.
Credit Angela Johnston

“It’s chaos, organized chaos,” he tells me as he directs volunteers to lay wattles across the stream.

Half of the wattles are a stuffed with a special type of mushroom fungus that will help filter out toxins.

“They’ve never been put out for fire runoff, so this is potentially groundbreaking,” he tells me.

Brokate saw the results first hand when he came out here a few days after the first rain. He noticed a wattle holding back debris and oily water.

“You could totally tell on the other side of the wattle how clear the water was running, it felt good. It felt like the stuff that we did the day before really made a difference ... We're protecting the littlest things, and the littlest things have the effects on the biggest things,” Brokate says.

Wattles are placed in front of burned cars.

That’s why constant water-quality testing and monitoring is also necessary. That’s Don McEnhill’s job.

I meet him the day after a big storm, near the fungi-filled wattles.

McEnhill works with river stewardship group Russian River Keeper — since the fire, he’s been out here almost every other day taking samples.

Once he draws the water into a plastic jar, he quickly tests for basic physical measurements like PH, temperature and conductivity — the higher the number, the more metals in the water.

“We're definitely up, there’s probably metals,” he says as he takes the first reading. “There’s probably a lot of other stuff that’s conducting electricity.”

Credit Angela Johnston

McEnhill tests water downstream from the wattles put in last weekend, and things have improved somewhat — “a little better than we expected, but definitely not good ... and we do always remain hopeful in the resiliency.”

Rebuilding with resiliency  

This resiliency is popping up elsewhere in Santa Rosa. When Katya Robinson and I walk out of the charred remains of her home in Coffey Park, she spots a tiny piece of green grass sprouting out of the ashy dirt.

“New growth! Some green is coming back,” she exclaims. “When we first got here, all you could do is smell the oil from everything and the gasoline coming from the car, so it’s nice to see there is new growth going on, grass coming back. The birds were coming back, they were playing in our burnt car.”

Once her insurance comes through, Robinson wants to rebuild on her property as soon as possible, but she hopes she can do it differently this time.

“All this stuff is going to sit in a landfill. It’s super depressing  when you look at all this destruction, and garbage, and things that we don’t necessarily need,” she says.

She thinks the city should find a way to incentivize homeowners and planners to rebuild neighborhoods like Coffey Park with greener materials and more efficient water systems.

“Hopefully all this brings a new change to Sonoma County,” she says “and what we do to actually rebuild, and consider a little bit better what we put in our houses.”

 The next volunteer day with Clean River Alliance will be December 16 in Fountain Grove. Visit www.cleanriveralliance.org for more info.