For some, rain would be a welcome respite as brush fire hot spots continue to burn on Maui.
For others, it is a major cause of concern in the aftermath of scorched lands due to the potential of harmful ash, chemicals and pollutants entering coastal waters. Fire-damaged lands mean there is greater potential for erosion and landslides.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aims to prevent this as much as possible, according to incident commander Steve Calanog.
“Rain events can present some additional challenges in terms of causing ash and debris to flow downstream and potentially into the ocean,” he said.
The EPA has some strategies to prevent this. Once teams have identified and removed hazardous waste, the EPA plans to apply a “soil tackifier” to prevent ash from being blown into the ocean, he said. It is a biodegradable, nontoxic substance that acts like a glue to keep the ash in place for several months.
The EPA has deployed 75 personnel to Maui, with another 25 to 30 expected to arrive in coming days, according to Calanog.
But they will not begin removal work or apply this soil tackifier in Lahaina until the search teams have completed their recovery mission.
“We are coordinating our work with the County of Maui, mayor’s office and state of Hawaii, and of course our federal partners of the task at hand,” he said.
The team’s primary job is to remove household hazardous waste from fire- affected areas, followed by larger debris removal.
Hazardous waste includes compressed gas cylinders, propane tanks, oxygen tanks, containers full of chemicals, paints, solvents, cleaners, pesticides and fertilizers.
The EPA teams have begun reconnaissance and removal work in Upcountry Maui, he said, but is standing by for Lahaina.
“Given the age of some parts of Lahaina,” said Calanog, “and based on experience of doing fires in the West the past 15 years, we can presume there may be asbestos, lead or arsenic or other metals in the ash.”
The state Health Department and Maui County officials, meanwhile, are advising residents to be cautious of toxic hazards and to use personal protective equipment when returning to burn sites.
“The Hawaii Department of Health advises avoiding the burn area until it is cleared of hazardous waste and structural ash,” said Diana Felton, chief of DOH’s Communicable Diseases and Public Health Nursing Division, in a statement. “The burn area is hazardous — enter at your (own) risk.”
The burn area in Lahaina includes many buildings that were constructed before 1970 and may have included these contaminants in building materials, she said. Arsenic may be present in the soil in Hawaii as it was used as an herbicide.
Health officials said children and pregnant people are at higher risk from hazards and should not help with cleanup efforts.
Those who can return to their properties should protect themselves with face masks, goggles, gloves, long sleeves, pants, socks and closed-toed shoes to avoid skin contact with ash. The debris and ash could include lead, asbestos, arsenic or other hazardous materials — and dust, dirt, and soot can become airborne and be inhaled.
DOH recommends a tight- fitting respirator mask with the letters “NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health)” or “N95” printed on it.
The National Weather Service, meanwhile, expects increasingly dry tradewind weather today and for the rest of the week.
As post-tropical cyclone Fernanda passed by the isles, it brought showers to windward Maui, but little rainfall is expected on the leeward side in coming days.
Calanog said the soil tackifier is commonly used as dust control for large excavation and mining sites. It has not been used often in California fire scenes, where many of the burns are inland and in mountain rages.
But it makes sense for Maui due to its downslope winds and proximity to the ocean.
To protect the ocean, the U.S. Coast Guard has placed absorbent booms near major storm drain outfalls and “containment booms” — temporary floating barriers — in the Lahaina Harbor area.
The Coast Guard is managing damaged or sunken vessels, numbering about 50, in and around the marina, he said.
Maui County has also placed “straw wattles,” or tubes of compressed straw, along with hay bales around the perimeters of burned residential structures to help prevent debris flow.
The first phase, the removal of hazardous waste by EPA’s team of specialists, is expected to take several months, at least.
The second phase, the removal of larger debris such as the husks of burned-up vehicles, will take longer due to the heavy equipment required, he said.
“However many people it takes, and for however long it takes, we’ll be here until it’s done,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s done quicker than we’re anticipating.”
He considers Lahaina one of the most tragic disasters his team has tackled due to the magnitude of loss.
“It’s completely devastating to a community,” he said, “and on top of that, a community so richly steeped in Hawaiian culture and history. It is hugely important to us that we respect and honor the traditions of the state of Hawaii, the community of Lahaina and County of Maui.”