Tuolumne County has declared a local health emergency over suspected abandoned hazardous waste in areas where the dozens of homes, commercial buildings and other structures burned to the ground in the Rim Fire.
With fire containment nearing, the third-largest wildfire in state history has destroyed 112 buildings.
According to Rob Kostlivy, the county’s Environmental Health Department director, the material left behind after a building burns can include melted car batteries, pool chemicals, pesticides, paints and other toxic compounds like asbestos or cadmium that are commonly found in homes, storage sheds or recreation sites like those located in the Tuolumne River canyons.
Properties damaged have included vacation homes, outbuildings and camp facilities in the Stanislaus National Forest.
Kostlivy told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday not only that those materials pose a risk to the environment, health and safety, but state laws also require special steps be taken to remove them. That can cost between a few thousand dollars to more than $15,000 for a property owner, he said.
As part of the emergency declaration, the county is spearheading a program to clean up those and any other hazardous waste they find on burned properties with financial help from the state.
To do that, the county plans to enter private properties unless the owners object, the properties are secured by gates, the sites include postings against trespassing or waste is found that poses an immediate threat.
Property owners will not be charged for the cleanup.
“Part of the agreement is we need to get right of entry,” Kostlivy said, later adding, “If there’s no locked gate, we’re going in there to clean it up.”
Details of the program were shared as part of a comprehensive update on the month-old Rim Fire at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. The board also extended a local state of emergency declared just days after the fire started on Aug. 17 and heard some details on immediate recovery plans.
A special National Forest Service team of experts is currently in the burn areas assessing the damage and will release a report in the coming weeks on what immediate steps should be taken to control erosion, road damage and other fallout from the devastating fire.
In other news, the county Board of Supervisors:
• Approved a contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for up to $200,000 to house about 38 inmates while the county jail receives some renovation work.
• Authorized the county roads department to apply for federal funds to replace bridges on Lime Kiln and Algerine roads, repair a bridge on Algerine Road and replace a ford on Sims Road with a low crossing bridge.
• Honored the Friends of the Groveland Library for their work supporting the county library system.