The Flames Are Extinguished but Toxins May Remain: California Wildfires Leave Lingering Environmental Impact on the Region

Toxic Smoke and Fumes.

As the October wine country wildfires spread and consumed structures, homes, timber and wildlife habitats, the flames also released toxic smoke into the air. This smoke has polluted the environment, carrying toxic chemicals from the flames for up to hundreds of thousands of miles away.

This has led the federal government to issue a public health emergency, with air quality at dangerous levels in Northern California. As a result, officials are distributing face masks for people to use to protect their health.

Toxic Ash and Debris.

In addition to the hazardous air quality, the fires have also caused significant debris and ash in the region. The ash includes remnants of all the materials that were consumed by the fire, which include plastics, paints, toxins, and chemicals in factories, homes and roadways. The New York Times reported that officials are concerned about the health risks of these toxins to animals and humans. The ash is being whipped into the air, causing air breathability concerns, as well as into stream runoff and groundwater supplies.

Remaining ash also poses the environmental concern of landslides. Charred soil and lingering ash can quicken the occurrence of erosion. Additionally, as fires consume vegetation, it destroys the structures inside the ground that keeps soil stable. Coupled with high rainfall, the threat of landslides is high, as the water can easily wash away the unstable soil.

Impact on the Ecosystem.

It’s true that smaller, naturally-occurring wildfires are a natural and important component of a sustained ecosystem. The small fires clear away dead debris and trees, and replenish the soil with necessary nutrients to help regeneration. But these recent wildfires in Northern California were much stronger than what ecosystems require, and they could have lasting, negative impacts on the flora and fauna of the region.

In addition to the erosion-causing charring of the soil and destruction of vegetation, the loss of this topsoil and organic material can negatively impact natural processes of an ecosystem, such as water infiltration and nutrient retention. According to the U.S. Forest Service, nitrogen—which is an essential element for plant growth—is eaten up by fire and must be replaced in the soil following wildfires such as these. A lack of this nitrogen can hinder plant growth and regeneration.

The absence of these native species plants opens the door for invasive weeds and grasses to overtake the ecosystem. This not only exacerbates the problem of erosion, but it also could lead to more frequent and more severe wildfires in the future.

Cleanup of Hazardous Waste and Ash is a Priority.

The Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) and the Army Corps of Engineers stated that it is a priority of the government-sponsored cleanup to focus on hazardous waste and ash that is plaguing the local environment. According to CNBC, Eric Lamoreaux of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said that the undertaking of cleanup is “monumental” and would include a greater region across Northern California. And it will take time: the state has estimated that the cleanup will continue through the Spring of 2018. It will be supervised by the EPA.

Overall, the environmental impacts of the California wildfires remain to be calculated in total, but according to the Sierra Club, environmental experts are certain that the ecosystem has been devastatingly altered, and that it will take years to return to normal.

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