Joint Wildfire Information Center warns residents of potential health risks from wildfires


SANTA FE — The Joint Wildfire Information Center is providing guidance to residents returning home from destructive blazes.

Homeowners should be aware of the immediate and long-term health risks associated with exposure to ash and debris from residential wildfires. Wherever possible, residents should avoid or minimize contact with fire debris.

“We know people are eager to get home and assess the damage from the recent devastating wildfires,” said DHSEM Deputy Secretary Carla Walton. “They often want to sift through the debris to see if anything is salvageable, but we strongly caution against this. The ash and debris could be dangerous or toxic.

Residential wildfire debris may contain some or all of the following:

  • Tiny particles of dust, dirt and soot that can easily become airborne and inhaled.
  • Toxic amounts of heavy metals including arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and mercury.
  • Asbestos.
  • Hazardous materials such as propane tanks, air conditioners, batteries, cleaning products, pesticides and herbicides.

Reducing your exposure while sifting through residential wildfire debris may not be prohibited, but for your safety and the safety of others, it is not recommended. Besides irritating the skin, nose and throat, substances like asbestos and cadmium are known to cause cancer. Owners wishing to search the debris for possible salvageable items should do so with caution and with proper protective equipment.

  • Avoid disturbing debris or lifting ashes.
  • NIOSH-certified air-purifying respirators are highly recommended. An N-95 rated mask is more effective at blocking particles.
  • Wear gloves, long shirts, pants, safety glasses or other protective clothing.
  • Change shoes and clothes as soon as you leave the site to avoid contaminating your vehicle, home or other non-contaminated areas.
  • Even with protective clothing and masks, children should not be exposed to ash or debris from a wildfire.

Cleanup of property and removal of debris after a major wildfire is an essential step in protecting public health and initiating recovery. The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, New Mexico Department of the Environment and FEMA are coordinating a plan to help homeowners clear fire debris from affected homes and buildings . More information will be shared with the public as it becomes available.

Until they are approved by the relevant authorities, owners are advised not to start debris removal. Beginning debris removal from destroyed homes or buildings prior to approval could jeopardize eligibility for future federal or state debris removal assistance.

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