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Dr. Eric Sergienko, Tuolumne County Health Officer, has issued a Declaration of a Local Health Emergency for the Washington Fire because there is evidence from recent fires in California that homes and other types of property destroyed by fire contain high levels of heavy metals, lead, mercury, dioxin, arsenic, and/or other carcinogens. Some property may also have the presence of radioactive materials. Exposure to these hazardous substances may lead to acute and chronic health effects, and may cause long-term public health and environmental impacts. While the Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services understands your need to access your property to assess damage and look for valuables, keepsakes, and mementoes that may have survived the fire, anyone accessing burned properties should use extreme caution and should follow Health Department guidance. Furthermore, anyone accessing burned properties should not disturb the footprint of any burned structures or areas. Moving ash, debris or other burned materials may exclude your property from state funding for hazardous materials assessment and cleanup. Tuolumne County is diligently working with various state and federal partners to establish a process for the quick assessment and removal of household hazardous waste and asbestos, as well as structural ash and debris from the fire. Until this process in finalized, please leave burned structure, ash and debris undisturbed as much as possible. Thank you for your cooperation.

Fires can damage wells and septic systems. 

How to determine well water safety and the need for testing: 

  • If the casing, well plumbing or pump house were damaged by the fire or firefighting equipment, Environmental Health strongly recommends the well be tested for bacteria (i.e. Total and Fecal Coliform bacteria or E. coli). 
  • If fire burned the well, pump house, pressure tank, or melted any of your plumbing, after repairs Environmental Health also recommends testing the well water for the chemical benzene. Benzene is a good indicator of the decomposition of plastics brought on by high temperatures and is a known carcinogen.
  • If there is further concern and/or need for additional water quality testing, it is recommend testing the well water for all volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and not just benzene. Heavy metals are commonly found in burn ash but only very rarely found in well water after a fire. However, some owners may wish to test for heavy metals for extra peace of mind. 

How to determine if the septic system is damaged: 

Fire could have damaged your septic system. The damage would have most likely occurred to the piping between the house and the septic tank, from the septic tank to the leach field, or the plastic septic tank lids and risers (if any). Damage can occur from heavy equipment such as backhoes and bulldozers used to fight the fire or to clean up debris. Repairs to the system must be completed by qualified professionals as per Tuolumne County Environmental Health’s requirements.

Contact Tuolumne County Environmental Health for further information and questions at 209-533-5633 or