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Haz waste cleanup prolongs rebuilding efforts after wildfires

A person wearing a mask and purple shirt stands in the middle of the debris left after a building has burned down.

In recent years, wildfires have increased in number and intensity across the West Coast. Wildfires are an obvious risk to public safety. Still, even after they’ve burned out the cleanup of damaged homes and businesses often involves hazardous wastes that can threaten human and environmental health. This cleanup must be complete before the hard work of rebuilding can begin.

Who can forget those apocalyptic photos from the wildfires in San Francisco in September 2020? A fiery red sky choked with smoke is a heartbreaking, yet familiar, West Coast vignette as wildfires increase in number and intensity in our region. Wildfires are an obvious risk to the public while they are actively burning, but safety concerns remain even as cleanup efforts begin. 

Common hazardous products stored in homes, garages, and storage sheds—like oil-based paint, motor oil, and chemical cleaners—can be left behind after a fire. Since these hazardous wastes can pose significant risk to human and environmental health, especially when not properly contained due to fire damage, they must be cleaned up before efforts to rebuild can begin.  

In Oregon and California, two states that grappled with intense wildfire events last year, government agencies have been working hard to clean hazardous waste from fire-damaged buildings. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency removed hazardous materials from 2,280 properties across eight counties in Oregon and from more than 2,600 properties across seven counties in California. In Oregon, the amount of hazardous waste removed totaled to 300,000 pounds! 

Even for homes and businesses that have been spared from major fire damage, tenants are likely to be moving or taking stock of what items to keep or toss. Knowing how to manage hazardous waste is critical both in times of natural disaster and during daily routines. In fact, residents and businesses who actively manage their hazardous waste now will have less to worry about later.  


For residents

  • Check the product labels for signal words like CAUTION, WARNING, DANGER, or POISON. If you see a signal word, consider choosing a safer alternative that is less harmful. 
  • Store hazardous products on a high shelf or in a secure container away from curious children and pets.
  • Lock up over-the-counter or prescription medicine to prevent accidental poisoning.
  • Never mix products.
  • Contact the Haz Waste Help Line for no-cost resources and advice for managing your hazardous waste.  

For businesses

  • Keep waste containers closed, except when it is necessary to add or remove waste.
  • Open, handle, and store containers in ways that avoid leakage, ruptures, and tipping.
  • Make sure all waste containers have sufficient secondary containment to prevent spills. 
  • Never mix different wastes together. 
  • Contact the Business Services Team for no-cost resources and advice for managing your hazardous waste.  


For residents

  • Do an inventory or cleanup of your home, garage, and storage areas 
  • Label any unmarked hazardous waste.
  • Drop off unwanted hazardous waste for safe disposal at a collection site (remember to secure your load). 

For businesses 

  • Do an inventory of your business site and storage areas
  • Label all hazardous wastes.
  • Keep records up to date. 
  • Review spill cleanup equipment and plan. Make sure all employees know how and when to use a spill cleanup kit. 
  • Drop off unwanted hazardous waste for safe disposal at a collection site (remember to secure your load). 
Photo credit: Andy Nelson/Register Guard

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