Billy's Guide to Ash Cleanup
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
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.
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
- Edhat article from 12/13/17
- Safe Clean-up hand-out from the California Landscape Contractors Association
- Firescape Garden – a valuable demonstration garden at Stanwood & Mission Ridge, courtesy of San Marcos Growers Wholesale Nursery
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 - https://sbcc.augusoft.net/