Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

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Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup
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By Billy Goodnick

It started two days into the Thomas Fire. Ash everywhere in my downtown Santa Barbara neighborhood, figuring out how to safely (and fashionably) wear my new, true, blue N95 mask, thinking about how to protect Biff the Wonder Spaniel from the “nose pollution” that was surely accompanying his necessary walks.

Surveying the air quality from my driveway, I saw a cloud of dust swallowing the house across the street. No way! The gardening service had cranked the leaf blower up to 11. To top it off, he wasn’t even wearing a facemask!

1. My trusty DRAMM multi-setting nozzle with spring-loaded shut-off, set on MIST

Like a coordinated ninja strike, I and two other neighbors descended on the man and pleaded with him to turn the damn thing off, trying to stay away from the cloud and yelling over the noise. “But I need to clean up,” was his explanation, not realizing the harm he was doing by putting that cloud of who-knows-what back into the air for everyone, including his client, to breathe.

So I went into research mode to learn for myself the safest, most resource-efficient ways to clean up once the ash stopped falling. I did some experimentation, too. I’ll include some links at the end of this post, but here’s the technique I discovered for cleaning a moderate amount of ash off my roughly 3,000 square foot asphalt driveway.

2. A gentle mist is all you need

What We Don’t Want

• Clouds of ash and dust: All the air quality folks are warning us about the mystery ingredients in the ash. When a house or hillside burns, everything turns to ash – plastic yard toys, insulation, asbestos from older structures, poison oak, couches, pork sausage, etc. Inhale and it goes to your lungs. Though the damage might not be immediate, over time, this stuff can take its toll on your health. (I’ll be wearing my mask until we get some rain – just cuz you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not in the air, kicked up by cars and breezes.)

• Excessive use of precious water: We’ve sucked up a whole lot of water fighting the fire and don’t have much to begin with as the drought wears on. And we’re looking at a VERY dry winter forecast, and you should fully understand why we need to continue conserving water.

• Hosing it “away”: First of all, there is no such place as “away” – everything ends up somewhere. Washing into garden beds isn’t great, but it’s better than sending a toxic slurry to the street > storm drain > creeks > beaches > ocean. (Gardening note: wood ash is a benefit in acidic soil, high-rainfall areas – that’s not us.)

3. Paved surface should just glisten; avoid obvious wet spots

Getting Started

First, suit up: I wore closed shoes and socks, long pants, long sleeve shirt, my trusty N95 mask and a baseball cap. And water-proof gloves, since water can make ash stick to your skin.

Second, gather these tools: Stiff push-broom, household broom, hose, dustpan and a plastic bag you can tie or seal. The most important piece of equipment is a hose nozzle with a shut-off feature so you can set it down between sprays and that can produce a light mist or fine spray. Big drops cause puddles – don’t want that or the ash turns to soup.

Next, get started: Lightly spray an area about 10-ft. by 10-ft. If you see even small pools of water, you’re applying too much water and will create a slurry, not crumbly granules of ash. Get your broom out and sweep from the edges of the moist area, moving the ash into a pile you’ll pick up later. If you get the water right, you’ll still see some traces of ash left behind, but the majority will move without kicking up fine dust.

Lastly, grab your dustpan and gently pick up the piles, placing them in a bag that you’ll seal and put in the regular trash. PLEASE do not just dump the piles in the can! Otherwise, when the hard-working folks come to pick up your trash, they will have to breathe in all that dust when they dump your can into their bigger receptacle.

4. Size of area to be swept; small broom for getting close to walls and doors

5. If you get the moisture right, you’ll sweep up granules

That’s it! Please consider this nearly effortless method and do yourself and your neighbors a health favor. And if you have a gardening service, DO NOT assume they know the right way to clean up. And just to instill a wee bit of guilt, they work for you, so ultimately, you are responsible for their actions.

Please share.

6. Voila! Result of sweeping a 10 x 10 section

7. Oops. Too much water leaves a slurry behind

8. Area beyond the concrete has not been swept

9. Expect more ash to fall from trees and roofs as winds kick up


Other Links:

Billy Goodnick is a Santa Barbara landscape architect specializing in small-scale residential design and teaches entertaining, informative classes through the Center for Lifelong Learning -

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GeneralTree Dec 20, 2017 05:51 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

I will clean up in any way I wish and screw your judgements. The sensitivity police need to get back on their side of the property line.


a-1513830323 Dec 20, 2017 08:25 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

General: I know what you mean about the "sensitivity" police - sheesh almighty! Go ahead and do it however you want, but make sure you do it right and not the wrong way. No one will judge you if you do a good job, but you might receive comment (or two) if you create more of a mess than you started with (as many people do!). Also, when you are disposing of the ash, please be sure to keep it covered and out of the wind to ensure you do not have to clean up the mess again.

a-1513821445 Dec 20, 2017 05:57 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

Even better would be to use common sense instead, but that's probably a forlorn hope.

Project Clean Water Dec 20, 2017 05:24 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

Additional resources from the County of Santa Barbara on ash cleanup can be found here:

420722 Dec 20, 2017 03:19 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

I figured all that out in about 3 mins and cleaned our entire backyard patio/driveway/court. Doesn’t look as good as before the ash but a solid rain will finish it off for me. Thanks for sharing this with people that think the leaf blowers are ok to use. You're basically just blowing to someone else’s yard or driveway.

Always_Running Dec 20, 2017 02:15 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

My husband went to home improvement today and bought a small wet/dry shop vac. Vacuumed our patio and the kids play structures. After he poured a cup of water of water down the tubbing to clump the ash together. He kept the “dry filter” inside and ruined it intentionally, but was extremely easy and no dust cloud as he lifted off the lid. Offered to clean our elderly neighbors too.

ginger1 Dec 20, 2017 01:45 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

Yes, thanks for writing that up, Offer it to the county and city. ;-) Even though far, far less toxic materials burned up here in SB and the ash we have to deal with is forest product, our lungs are not designed to handle smoke and ash. I'm hoping our just-started "wind event" whips up the stuff and sends it off into the ocean. I'm pretty sure the ocean can handle the dissolved ash and, in fact, could have a net *benefit* if it helps manage the human-caused ocean acidification. Of course it won't, considering the statistically hugely insignificant amount of ash-created alkaline offset. It's science.

EastBeach Dec 20, 2017 09:06 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

And Google "NPR Is All That Wildfire Smoke Damaging My Lungs?". The simple answer is yes it can. According to the pulmonologist interviewed for the article, the smoke is especially bad when there are fine particles 2.5 microns in size or less (that's why the local AQ stations make measurements for both 10 micron and 2.5 micron particles). He goes on to say it's worse for those with asthma , chronic lung disease, the elderly, children (their lungs are still developing), and pregnant women (risk to fetus).

EastBeach Dec 20, 2017 08:55 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

Actually, there was an article (Noozhawk I believe) where a battalion chief was asked a similar question. IIRC, his chagrined response was the firefighters are supposed to be wearing their masks but in practice don't because they're physically working hard and carrying heavy equipment (a personal sacrifice they make). The BC also said when fighting a structure fire, it was absolutely mandatory for fire fighters to wear masks because burning smoke/ash contains nasty stuff like asbestos particles, etc.

a-1513830402 Dec 20, 2017 08:26 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

Ginger. Please tell me why none of the fire fighters are wearing masks if our lungs aren't resilient. Please don't spread unscientific bologna. The human lung is actually very resilient. However, children, the elderly, and those with breathing problems should avoid contact with smoke and ash.

Billy Goodnick Dec 20, 2017 01:44 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

A-1513805812 - I'll take a shot at answering, though it might not be as thorough as someone with an environmental background might explain. 30 million years ago, most of the ground was permeable and covered in vegetation. Watersheds weren't paved and covered with houses that concentrated run-off and prevented any type of natural filtration. So very little ash likely made it to major waterways -- nature has a way of dispersing the negative effects. Add to that the likelihood that the creeks and ocean were much more robust and healthy, with lots of shoreline vegetation and underwater diversity. Second, consider how much water we don't have to waste on washing down our homes and streets and it makes sense to be as resourceful and conservative as we can when cleaning up. I'm sure others with more expertise can go deeper, but I'll leave it here before I exceed my pay grade.

a-1513802707 Dec 20, 2017 12:45 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

I'm not understanding the problem with ash going into the ocean. It's been going into the ocean for the last 30 million years. And only like 3 homes have burned, so this is basically pure vegetation ash.

SBlocal_ Dec 20, 2017 01:49 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

With over 1000 structures burned the conditions are unlike any time in history for SB and Ventura county. The wind is discriminant it doesn't drop the ash at the county line, it caries it for miles. With the new winds this afternoon everything that's in the trees, on rooftops and lining the streets in being swept back up. Time to put the masks back on.

a-1513803816 Dec 20, 2017 01:03 PM
Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup

"only like 3 homes have burned" - um, do you not have access to any news sources?

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