SOURCE: Washington Post

DATE: April 9, 2019

SNIP: As an uncontrollable wildfire turned the California town of Paradise to ash, air pollution researcher Keith Bein knew he had to act fast: Little is known about toxic chemicals released when a whole town burns, and the wind would soon blow away evidence.

He drove about 100 miles to Paradise, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, from his laboratory at the University of California at Davis, only to be refused entrance under rules that allow first responders and journalists — but not public health researchers — to cross police lines.

It was the second time Bein says he was unable to gather ­post-wildfire research in a field so new public safety agencies have not yet developed procedures for allowing scientists into restricted areas.

Fires like the one that razed Paradise in November burn thousands of pounds of wiring, plastic pipes and building materials, leaving dangerous chemicals in the air, soil and water. Lead paint, burned asbestos and even melted refrigerators from tens of thousands of households only add to the danger, public health experts say.

Researchers are examining soil tested for the presence of chemical compounds in neighborhoods destroyed by the 2017 wildfire that swept into Santa Rosa, in California’s Sonoma County north of the Bay Area, and comparing it to uninhabited land nearby where only trees had burned, ­Hertz-Picciotto said. In that still-uncompleted study, researchers found nearly 2,000 more chemical compounds in the soil than in uninhabited parkland nearby. Researchers are now working to identify the compounds.

While scientists have studied wildfires for decades — learning much about the impact on air, soil and nearby ecosystems — fires that race from the forest into large urban communities were, until recently, exceedingly rare.